An AmericanTellsHis Story
AN AMERICAN TELLS HIS STORY
By John Noble
THE DEVIN-ADAIR COMPANY • NEW YORK • 1960
I WAS A SLAVE
It is hard to de
scribe a nightmare adequately, unless you can say
how the day had been before the night fell. The
worst time may come after a good calm day, when
the night turns into a horror.
For me, it came out of days that were filled with
new hopes and with dreams for the days to come.
It came on a very good day, and it happened like
by the giant blows of American air raids, moved restlessly
and expectantly in its ruins. It was the first week of May,
1945. War sounds of a new sort had been heard from east
and west. On May 6, just sixty-five miles to the west,
American soldiers were pushing against the last lines of
German resistance. To the east, Russian troops were mov-
ing toward the city.
For my family, in our house high above Dresden on
Bergbahn Strasse (the Street of the Mountain Railway),
the sounds meant something far different from what they
meant to any of our neighbors.
Throughout the war we had been locally interned by
Hitler's forces. We were not permitted to leave the city,
and every third day we had to register with the police. We
were under constant observation by the Gestapo. Yet we
were treated well, even courteously.
For we were enemy aliens, American citizens. I was
born in the United States. My father and mother, born io
Germany, and my brother, born in Switzerland, were natu-
ralized Americans and remain so to this day. The war
sounds of May 6, therefore, meant that our countrymen
were coming — and peace. Peace, at long, weary last.
Perhaps, though, we were listening more closely to the
west than to the east, wnere the Soviet cannonading was.
Dresdeners knew that the war was really ending. The
only question was which side would reach Dresden first,
the east or the west. Many hoped it would be the east, the
Russians; the horrors of American air raids were fresh in
There had been rumors of Russian outrages in other
parts of the country, but these were only rumors. Few peo-
ple believed them.
And so May 6 was cannon fire in the distance and anx-
iety on the streets. The night before had been sleepless in
the Noble house. We all were up at dawn. We knew, as
the whole town did, that today probably would see the
gunfire and everything pretty well decided.
A pair of artillery glasses mounted on our sun porch
gave a view of the entire city. As soon as it was
light enough to see, we began turning the glasses slowly
back and forth. There seemed to be no movement at all.
Even stranger, we heard no sound. To my father, this all
meant that the end of the race was near. The Americans,
we hoped, would be the first in. Why not, suggested my
father, raise the American flag? We had painstakingly
made the flag from bits of cloth in anticipation of a day
that we feared would never really come. The only times
we ever had taken it from its hiding place were those times
of fear and suspense when American planes rode high in
the skies, and the siren howls sent the Germans scurrying
for shelter. We would spread the flag out on the bright
white tiles of the big terrace that extended from the house
on all sides.
My father's proposal sent my brother George and me
racing up to the roof, the flag in our arms. It was all very
exciting; we didn't know what might happen as we stuck
our heads out. There might be shots from the silent town.
Anything. We hesitated a moment, then were out on the
roof, feet braced precariously on the slates. Hastily we
fastened the flag to a rod and hung it out.
We ducked back in and waited. Still not a sound. Then
we heard my father calling to us to come quickly. We ran
down to the porch and looked out over the city. Miracu-
lously, it seemed, from windows, from rooftops — from al-
most every building — white flags had begun to pop out
Within minutes the city below us was a field of white flags
of every size and construction, flapping in the breeze or
being waved frantically.
The appearance of our flag had been like the squeeze
on a trigger, releasing the town's nervous pressure. The
people had been poised and waiting for a conqueror — as
we had been waiting for a liberator.
The town waited silently, behind its fagade of white
An hour later we knew who had won the race for Dres-
den. From our porch, through the artillery glasses, we saw
a soldier. His uniform seemed to be made up of ragged
odds and ends; but the shoulder boards, askew on his
tunic, were what counted. They were red.
The occupying forces flooded in. The highway from
Bautzen was lined for miles with the horse carts in which
the Red army traveled through Germany. Drunken sol-
diers roistered along the road. The fighting was over, and
there was no discipline. Permission had been given the
soldiers to pillage and rape. Marshal Zhukov had issued
the order: full liberty for the Red army to do as it pleased
for three days. But the horror was to go on unendingly for
On that first day in Dresden we saw soldiers pulling mat-
tresses out of houses, and we knew they would be put to
one of two uses: for drunken sleep or for rape. Rape was
the sport of the day, and it was not done in. private. The
soldiers didn't care about privacy; the screaming victims
One might hurry down a residential street and hear
screams also from houses which one might have visited
socially the week before.
Red flags now replaced the white. Swastikas had been
carefully unstitched, leaving only a red field on which
greetings to the conquerors had been scrawled: "WE
THANK THE RED ARMY FOR FREEDOM, WORK,
Before I left the house to look at "liberated" Dresden,
George and I had taken a precaution which to some might
have looked foolish. We simply had hung on the gate a
sign that read "U.S. PROPERTY." To the Russians it
must have seemed potent. Not one unauthorized Red sol-
dier set foot on the property, even though drunken soldiers
later in the month set fire to the Loisenhof, Dresden's best
restaurant, across the street from us. And routed 300 per-
sons out of a bomb shelter nearby and raped every woman
there, regardless of age or condition. But the sign on our
gate seemed to throw a circle of exemption around our
house. It was easy to infer that the friendship of Russia
and the United States was the reason.
I was 21 then. Before my next birthday I was to learn
a lot more about that friendship.
Soon the sanctuary of the Noble home was being talked
about among the people we knew in Dresden. In less than
48 hours after the Red troops had entered the city, while
rape and pillage were at their height, thirty of our closest
friends took shelter with us. No. 12 Bergbahn, perched on
the highest point of the hills around the city and flying the
American flag, must have seemed a genuine outpost of
the United States.
A British prisoner of war, released from a Stalag camp
when the Russians came through the German lines, had
shown up at our gate seeking shelter. We gave him food,
a bicycle, and directions, and after he had rested he went
off westward to the American lines.
On the third day of the occupation, we crossed the street
to the garage in which our car had been stored throughout
the war. We had had no gas ration and, in any event, as
aliens we couldn't have gone very far. It was a large, two-
tone Audi convertible, and to reach it we required the co-
operation of the garage keeper. To prevent the Russians
from making off with the 100-odd vehicles in his charge,
he had cut the wires to the elevator that led to the under-
ground garage. There was, he explained to the Russians,
no other way to get there. If they could repair it, of course
. . . None even tried. Actually, he had only to put two
George and I painted a fairly "officiaT-looking Amer-
ican flag on the back trunk of the car and affixed two small
flags to fender stanchions. Our "U.S." car was then ready
for a trip to the American lines, sixty-five miles away.
Father took the trip, with my brother George, a British-
born neighbor, and an American friend. They were not
At Grimma, a little town just west of the demarcation
line and southeast of Leipzig, they spoke to some Amer-
ican officers. The town mayor, one Major Clark, said:
"We'll do all we can. You're in good hands now, but you'll
have to wait till early 1946. Space will be available then
for civilians, and you can get back to the States."
This was not exactly what we had expected, but then
the two years we had originally intended to stay in Europe
had already been tripled, and a few more months wouldn't
matter, we thought.
Our house continued immune to the abuses that the
Russians were visiting upon the rest of the town, and even
our camera factory had not been placed on the Russians'
list of factories to be immediately dismantled and hauled
to Russia. Father's "nothing-can-happen-to-us" attitude
affected us and everything we did. We were secure in our
house high on the hill.
Within the first few days of the occupation we tried to
get the factory back into regular operation. George handled
production details and I worked to straighten out the ad-
ministrative end. Some changes had taken place, not all
of them welcome. One worker who had been assigned to
the factory as a functionary of the Nazi Arbeitsfront, the
party's labor-union front, showed up with a Communist
brassard proudly flaunted in place of his swastika arm-
band. My father protested against some of the demands
of the Nazi-turned-Communist and even took his com-
plaint to the city officials. But there too he found that the
Communist officials, by and large, were simply Nazi of-
ficials with new armbands.
May 13 brought new problems to our "America Island."
Eight Americans, former prisoners of the Nazis, arrived
One, carried on a dapple-gray horse, was in a dying con-
dition. We placed him on a stretcher and carried him to
the Lahmans sanitarium, now run by the Russians.
As we stepped into the reception room, we saw vodka
bottles in place of medicines, Russian drunks instead of
flowers. The scent of vodka and stale tobacco smoke
filled the place. We were greeted by a burly soldier who
shouted, "Get out! This place is for Red army soldiers."
We carried the moaning soldier back to the house. Our
'family doctor came to examine him and gave him med-
icine to relieve the pain. That evening, half a dozen of our
transient American guests left for the American lines,
promising to send an ambulance when they arrived.
We waited, and while we waited the Russians set fire
to the Loisenhof restaurant. They roared with laughter
as the flames started to devour the building, but cursed
and threatened us as, with the aid of our American visitors,
we put out the fire.
That evening, more than twenty-four hours after the
previous group had left for the west, the rest of the Amer-
icans also departed, all but the sick one; they in turn prom-
ised to send an ambulance. To our joy, an ambulance
pulled up a few hours later; it had come at the request of the
first contingent. The crew loaded the patient aboard and
The second group, we later learned, also reached the
American lines in safety and reported what was taking
place in our section of Dresden. On the morning of May
15, half a dozen staff cars of the 76th Division drove up.
Khaki cars had never looked more beautiful. Two officers
came in to speak with us. Their principal mission, they
said, was to find as many American soldiers as they could.
We assured them of our help and offered to take them to
the City Hall, where they might explain their purpose to
the officials there.
The Russians, however, were quick to point out that
they were not interested in rounding up American soldiers
released from Nazi camps. It was none of our business
either, they said, making it unmistakably clear that they
had no intention of cooperating with the Nobles or with
any other Americans, military or civilian.
The American officers, quietly furious and expecting no
help from the Red army, settled upon making the Noble
house a kind of official halfway station for returning sol-
diers. We spent the rest of the day cruising around the
city with them in search of Americans. By nightfall we had
returned home with thirty in tow.
It was arranged that cars of the 76th Division should
come twice weekly to pick up soldiers from our house. But
as it developed, they came twice a day, and always we had
American soldiers to send back with them.
Things were working out. Our factory was in limited
but healthy production. City Hall seemed to have accepted
the fact that our house was a liaison station for messages
and soldiers destined for the American zone. At one point,
a Red officer came to the door, checked our papers, pro-
nounced them in order, and offered to post guards if we
felt the need. We gratefully declined, for the sign "U.S.
PROPERTY" was working well. The Red army gave our
factory an order for cameras, and there seemed not a cloud
on the horizon.
Perhaps we had not been looking closely enough at
the streets of Dresden. In the press of our own plans it was
easy to ignore day-to-day occurrences — civilians stepping
hastily off the sidewalks when Red soldiers approached;
the continual drunkenness and rapings; the arrests. These
disorders were all too easy to overlook as a part of the gen-
eral disorder in the world. Tomorrow it would be all right
again. There was always tomorrow.
In East Germany all optical plants had been disman-
tled and shipped to the Soviet Union. We had the problem,
then, of obtaining lenses so that we could fill our Red army
orders for cameras. When we explained this to the Dres-
den City Hall, we received permission from that source
and from Red army headquarters to go west and see what
might be done with American or West German help.
On June 28 my father and I left at seven in the morning
on a trip to the American zone. We were to see a lens
maker in Jena about making lenses for our factory. At
eleven we reached the border. There was an argument
with a Red guard about our papers, but finally we con-
vinced him that they were in order, and we went on our
We had very poor success at Jena, because many of-
ficials of the German optical companies, Zeiss in particu-
lar, had already headed deeper into the western zone ahead
of rumors that American forces might soon quit all Thu-
ringia. We left an order for lenses, nevertheless, and went
to Kassel, where American headquarters had been estab-
lished. We planned to work out details there for setting
up a plant in the American zone.
At Kassel we were assured there was no need to trans-
plant our factory, or a part of it, to a western area, or to
set up a new one there, since Dresden lay in a territory
that sooner or later would come under British occupation.
Our trip back was a quiet one, and we felt a great surge
of relief . When a British border guard who stopped us at
his check point asked us half seriously if we wanted to
commit suicide by returning to the Soviet zone, my father
It was late in the afternoon of July 5 that we crossed
into the Soviet zone. The barbed-wire entanglements, the
floodlights, the machine-gun nests that marked the border
were soon behind us. Rain began to fall, and we nearly
had our only mishap, skidding and almost hitting a bridge
We reached Dresden shortly before midnight and drove
directly to our house. We had seen one or two Russian
guards patrolling the street, but they showed little interest
in us. All was quiet, and there were no other people about,
for none were permitted out of doors after nine.
We stopped at our gate, unpacked our things quickly,
and rang the bell. George came out of the house and
walked down rapidly to meet us. A civilian followed him.
My father asked, "George, who is he?"
"Father, something is wrong." George's voice was tired
and tight. Turning to the civilian and then back to us, he
said, "They're putting you under arrest."
I glanced at the roof. The American flag was not there.
The days of security and complacency had ended.
The nightmare had begun. And it was to rule us for
LIGHTS BURNED IN OUR
house all night, as we readied ourselves for what might fol-
low. Mother explained what had happened in our ab-
sence. The Russian soldiers had come a few hours after
we had left on our trip west. Six house guests, who had
been driven from their own homes by fear of the liberators,
were arrested and taken away for questioning. A number
of American soldiers who had come from the American
zone were also removed; they were held for five days, we
learned later. Finally, every camera in the house was con-
At no time, while they were being questioned, had
George or my mother heard mention of a charge.
My father, still optimistic, was sure it was a misunder-
standing. All would be straightened out in a day or two.
But I noticed that the light shone in his room through the
At seven the following morning my father and I were
taken, as prisoners of the Soviet political police, to NKVD
headquarters in Dresden. We felt a moment of hope as
we parked: two American jeeps stood by the building.
Might the Americans be there to arrange our freedom?
We were soon to find that they too were under arrest.
We were held at NKVD headquarters for three days. We
were not formally questioned, but the officers conversed
with us and sought obliquely the names of any relatives
we might have in Germany. Still no charges were brought,
no explanations offered for our arrest.
After the third day the headquarters was moved, and
we were taken along, like so much furniture. At the new
address, Bautzner Strasse 1 14, we were assigned to rooms
in the attic. From my window I could look up the Elbe
valley and see the glossy white brick tower of our house,
the tower from which we had flown our flag.
At our new address, my only chance to speak to my
father was on trips to the bathroom. On one trip he told
me that an NKVD colonel had interviewed him. "You are
no American citizen," he told my father. My father
laughed this off as a clumsy intimidation. Then the colonel
waved a sheet of paper under my father's face; it was a
telegram, he said, a telegram from New York "proving"
that my father was not a citizen. When my father replied
that if a telegram in regard to his citizenship were sent at
all, it could only prove his citizenship, and that it could
only come from Washington, not from New York, the
colonel stalked angrily from the room. Indeed, the attempt
to frighten us was so clumsy that my father's attitude that
the arrest was a mistake became more reasonable than
Our food was drab, to say the least. We had noodles
and canned meat, noodles and milk, noodles and fat or
potatoes. It was a boring enough diet. Yet it was the best,
bar none, that I was to eat for the better part of a decade.
On the evening of the twentieth the bill of fare
was varied. One of the guards, in a state of excitement,
brought us sandwiches. He also brought the news we had
been waiting for: we were to be released. The sandwiches
seemed almost a gesture of apology.
The next day we were all ready. I was called down to
one of the NKVD offices, presumably for my leave-taking.
A Captain Pankov was waiting for me. He looked and
acted like NKVD officers: he took short, tight steps, his
head slightly bowed, eyes turned up and peering from un-
der frowning brows. It was the NKVD attitude and motion
of continuous tension.
Captain Pankov seemed friendly. He greeted me with a
smile, then got down to business, which I assumed would
be a final routine questioning, the last go-around before
"How much money have you?" he asked.
I took out my wallet, opened it, and went through my
money. A 1000-mark note and 1860 marks in smaller
denominations were there. I handed him the wallet, auto-
matically palming the 1000-mark note. The next mo-
ment, I was glad I had done this.
"Take off your watch, please," Pankov said.
I handed it to him, and he wrote out a receipt for it and
pushed it across the desk to me.
"Let me have your papers," he said.
He took these and made a little pile of them. My pass-
port was there, my driver's license, birth certificate, and
my papers from the Swiss consulate. The consulate had
been in technical charge of enemy aliens in Germany dur-
ing the war.
On top of the pile he plunked my silver cigarette case.
(I don't smoke, but I always carried cigarettes to offer to
"You will be taken to prison," he announced routinely.
He must have seen my face tighten in alarm, for he ex-
plained the situation in his casual way: "You are to be
called as a witness in your father's trial and then you will
When I protested that my father, as an American citi-
zen, hardly seemed liable to a Soviet trial proceeding, Pan-
kov waved me away with a smile and said, "Our govern-
ment knows exactly what it can and cannot do. That will
A guard took me to a waiting car; my father was there
before me. We had a whispered consultation as to the
meaning of it all, and of one thing my father was sure.
"Everything will turn out all right," he said.
The drive was a short one, down the hill and into the
central part of Dresden. We headed into the partly
bombed-out but still quite usable Miinchenerplatz prison.
From the car we were taken inside; gate after gate
clanged shut behind us, and the clanging echoed through
the dark corridors. We were taken into a small office where
a guard, in broken German, gave us instructions.
"Take off your belt and take the shoestrings from your
shoes," he ordered. I had heard that this was standard
procedure to prevent people from committing suicide, but
only in the case of real criminals. Criminals! The thought
whirled around in my mind. Criminals.
An escort took us to the second floor. I was led to cell
number 5, my father in another direction. I walked into
the cell and the guard slammed the iron door. The noise
reverberated in my mind and through me. Alone, and with
the noise of that great iron door filling the cell, all the
feeling of dread that my father's optimism had kept away
came over me in a wave. I was afraid and alone. The door
had closed me in. And it had shut the world out.
In the door was a spy hole, and over the door a barred
transom. Through the hole I could see my father being
shoved through a door almost directly opposite. I stood
for half an hour at the hole, staring at the faceless rows of
doors. I wondered how many eyes were similarly peering
through spy holes.
Then I heard the screams.
Someone was being whipped. The screams were clear
but directionless, as though filtered through the thick walls
of the prison. Later I was able to place the direction from
which they came; the whippings took place in the "ques-
tioning room," in a wing of the building. It was at the
opposite side of the prison from my cell and adjacent to
one of Dresden's residential streets.
Suddenly a closer sound of violence slammed into the
cell block. It came from the fourth floor. By looking
sharply upward from the bottom edge of the spy hole I
could see the hallway that ran past the fourth-floor cells.
As I looked, a cell door opened. Guards dragged a strug-
gling prisoner out and threw him to the floor. He tried
Note: The south, east, and west wings were
bombed at the ends. On the main floor, used
only in secrecy by the Soviets, were the dis-
infection cabinet and dark cells. On the mez-
zanine floor were the reception room for pris-
oners, prisoners' kitchen, and KPZ cells. On
the second floor were 30 prisoners' cells, 2
dungeons, 5 cells for prisoners sentenced to
death, execution area, investigation rooms, and
administrative offices. On the third floor were
30 cells, doctor's quarters, Soviet court, and
to fight his way up, and they pounced on him and pinned
him to the floor with their knees. Then they stripped him,
tearing his shirt away and pulling his trousers off in a
violent tug that left the prisoner tumbled head down in a
heap against the wall.
One guard had a short leather whip. The other hastily
pulled off his belt. Then they began beating the man, not
slowly and methodically but rapidly and in semifrenzy.
They kicked him and shoved him along the floor while
they tore his skin with their cutting lengths of leather.
His screams were terror-filled and anguished.
I couldn't keep from watching; the horror of it was hyp-
notic. Long after the guards had finished, panting, and had
flung the bloody, whimpering man back into the cell, the
scene and the sounds stayed on in my mind, even into
And added to them were new screams from the ques-
IT WAS SEVERAL DAYS
before I realized the most important fact of prison life.
This paramount concern, riding the days and nights like
a monkey perched on the head, is food, the belly-craving
that fills one like a cancer and crowds out everything else.
On the first morning, it was the scenes and sounds of
violence that preoccupied. Screams could be heard almost
constantly from the questioning room. I learned, though,
that the mind can erect barriers against such sounds, so
that unless one tries one cannot hear them. Prisoners who
couldn't shut them out didn't last long. They went mad.
I was told that one of the many prisoners who attempted
suicide tried to kill himself in his madness by crashing
his head against the wall of his cell.
When food was first brought in to me, I still hadn't
learned about the domination of the stomach when men
are made to live like animals. The meal was a bowl of
coffee-colored soup with a fishy taste. I threw it out with-
out a second thought.
The day went easily and without incident. The cell was
swarming with bugs, and I occupied myself by catching
them and flipping them into the toilet bowl. At noon and in
the evening, watery, fishy soup was again distributed, and
again I poured it out. I told myself I didn't need it.
Within a very few days I realized how mistaken I was.
Inexplicably, the food stopped coming. It didn't stop just
for me; it stopped throughout the prison. There was no
food for anyone. There was no explanation from the
guards. "There will be food tomorrow," they said. There
wasn't. Warm water with a coffee taste was passed out
instead. Later in the day, the guards brought twenty-
quart buckets from which they served, as solemnly as if it
were food, plain warm water, yellowish and without taste.
Slowly, the stomach took over body and mind. There
was no food the next morning, only more of the warm
water. I had never really been hungry before. During our
entire internment in Germany we had had the same food
as everyone else in Dresden. Even the worst air raids had
not deprived us altogether. The Germans never had
cracked down on rations.
But now I began to know about hunger, and it was
frightening. It was not just an emptiness; it was a posi-
tive, driving force, urgent and constantly on the mind —
like the urgency of a schoolboy's body as he dreams his
first pulsing dreams of sex.
I had to face the situation. I was alone in my cell, with
no one to talk to, no one to turn to for help, except God,
perhaps. Would He hear a prayer from me? Would He
persuade those creatures in the prison corridors to open
the door and bring me food, or even freedom? I spoke my
prayers, asking God in heaven to comfort my body and
I am sure many others in those prison walls were ask-
ing divine help too. And many outside the walls, for even
the "free" people of Germany had had to pull in their
belts a notch or two. Food was scarce. Everywhere, the
Soviet troops had been trampling down stock rooms,
looting. The stock room in Munchenerplatz prison had
been full when the Russians arrived, but they had nearly
emptied it, so that they might trade food for vodka or
schnapps. Other food reserves had been carried away by
the soldiers to feed the women they were using day and
night. I found out later that, at the time we were starving
in our cells, the guard and officers in my house were forc-
ing my mother to cook our food for the girls whom the
Russians brought into the house.
Three days passed and no food was distributed to us.
At last, on the fourth day — which was July 31, 1945 —
a few ounces of bread and some thin soup were handed
to me; on the fifth day, more of the same, but as I lay
down that evening I had no idea that on the following
morning would begin a twelve-day starvation period.
When it became apparent on the first of those days that
there was to be no food, loud protests, uncontrolled curses
and screaming were let loose. They became louder as the
second, third, and fourth days went by. Men went out of
their minds, woman prisoners became hysterical. Some
Moslem prisoners chanted their prayers.
Then death struck, right and left. Cell doors were
opened and dead bodies pulled out by an arm or a leg.
I wondered when it would be my father's turn and mine.
When I no longer was strong enough to lift my feet off
the floor, I put myself into the hands of God.
Some seven hundred prisoners had entered that starva-
tion period. I was one of twenty-two or twenty-three that
survived, along with my father.
Each day, as the guards brought the warm water
around, they roused the prisoners with a cry of "break-
fast" or "coffee." If the cry was "breakfast," there would
be a tense silence as the prisoners waited to see if food was
meant, or more water. And during those twelve days it
was always the water.
On the thirteenth day my cell door opened and a guard,
as indifferent as if he had been supervising a delivery of
water, stepped into the cell. From a large container he
took a tiny mound of bread crumbs wrapped in a piece
of crumpled paper. The crumbs weighed two ounces.
I stared at the crumbs for twenty minutes, then ate
them one at a time. They did little for the aching empti-
ness, but their dry, tasteless texture started the saliva flow-
ing, and each crumb was an almost unbearable pleasure.
At noon, the usual buckets were brought to the cells.
It was again warm water, mainly, that was ladled out, but
also it had the aroma of soup. And the bottom of the
bucket could not be seen through the liquid. It was that
With bread and soup on the menu again, at least some
of the prisoners who had survived the twelve days of star-
vation began to feel normal again. They could be seen
standing and moving in their cells. Others were dying,
however, from the lasting effects of hunger. As new pris-
oners were brought in, it was very evident that the "old-
timers" had built a mental refuge for themselves. Com-
pared to the horrors of the twelve days, to have a couple
of cups of weak broth and a piece of bread meant a good
My cell was eight paces long and about six wide. It
had one bed — a metal frame with fiber-stuffed pads for
mattress. It folded back against the wall when not in use.
Against one wall was a seatless toilet bowl, flushed from
outside, and in a corner stood a short-handled broom,
with which a prisoner was supposed to sweep the cell once
Other men were brought in now to share my cell. I was
pretty lucky in my companions, and never suffered from
the overcrowding that was beginning to blight the exist-
ence of other prisoners. Some cells, of the same size as
mine, had twenty occupants.
My first cell mates were a Russian-born doctor and
a German farm boy. At night, we placed the mats on the
floor and slept there, reserving the bed for a daytime
Like virtually everyone else in the prison with whom I
came in contact, they knew of no reason for being jailed.
They did not know when, if ever, they would be released,
or even sentenced. This ignorance of our fate was our
prison sickness, far more curdling to the mind than a
sentence to death or to a long term in prison would have
The third man sent to my cell was a forestry student.
While I had almost wept with happiness to have the doc-
tor and the farm lad share the world of my cell, it was the
forestry student who did one of the greatest services pos-
sible. For reasons as mysterious as those for which he had
been imprisoned in the first place, he was released. Be-
fore he left, I asked him if he could take a message to
my house, so that my mother might know the whereabouts
of my father and myself. Despite the peril of going near a
house as suspect as was ours, he did deliver the message.
The word he carried meant fresh hope, of course, for
the family. We were well. We certainly would be released,
they reasoned. The power of the United States would turn
the keys and open the doors. It was just a matter of time.
In prison, of course, one's hopes did not travel so far.
It was enough that the word of our existence could be
leaked out. There was no talk of release, or of the future
from any aspect. I found that it did not take long to start
thinking like a prisoner.
The conception of time disappeared from my mind,
and I could think only as far as this: by God's grace I
would live or die. Beyond that there was no planning, no
dreaming, no hoping. The rotation of the earth from
day to night, from season to season, held little meaning.
Time was not measured by the clock. It progressed by
pains, by screams, by weariness, by hunger.
A STRANGE FEAR RODE
the entire population of East Germany, regardless of age,
sex, occupation, or belief. The fear diminished in those who
were imprisoned by the MVD (the NKVD were renamed
MVD about this time), but it struck them again with full
force when they were released. They had supposed that their
prison experience would have hardened them against fear,
but this was not so. To these prisoners, let loose in East
Germany, where the Soviet terror is present on every street,
release brought no joy beyond the momentary joy of seeing
loved ones again.
Every ring of the doorbell, every knock on the door,
every MVD car passing by brought the fear — the fear of
being arrested again. When they were arrested again, they
actually were relieved to be in prison once more. It meant,
in a twisted, sick way, security for them. At least they
knew. They didn't have to die inside any more when the
doorbell sounded. The cell was sure and certain; they
knew more or less what they could count on. Now all
they had to worry about were the times the cell door
opened to bring some change in their prison routine. It
seemed that this sort of uncertainty, within the rigidity of
the prison routine and the locked-in vault of the prison
cell, was better than living in the "freedom" of a land
occupied by the Soviet terror.
The things that gave prisoners a sense of security were
things I came to know well also. There was, for instance,
the infinite, patient attention paid to the division of food.
This was particularly painstaking and meaningful in the
cells occupied by prisoners who helped with the serving
of food from cell to cell, as I did many times.
During the serving of, say, barley broth, the prisoner-
server would have little trouble in saving a cupful or so
at the bottom of the bucket. This he could bring back to
his cell, where, with as much care as a diamond merchant
uses in sorting gems, the men would separate the grains
of barley. Equal numbers of grains went to each cell mate.
If a single grain remained at the end of the count, the
server might claim it.
There was also the matter of filth. It preoccupied every-
one. To our Soviet guards, cleanliness was of little con-
cern. A guard to whom it was, stood out as an oddity.
For the most part, the guards were like the soldiers who
had streamed into Dresden to rape and burn and steal.
They were dirty, ill clad, and untroubled by their condi-
tion. Few showed any familiarity with modern plumbing.
In the prison toilets they scattered filthy toilet paper about
the floor. Often they laughed at the toilets, like children
seeing a strange, impractical toy for the first time.
Although necessity brought the guards to the prison
bathrooms, they had a choice when it came to bathing in
the prison tubs. By and large, they exercised this by stay-
ing away. There was a tub for the guards on every floor,
but when a guard used it, word passed like a joke from
cell to cell and the prisoners conjectured why the cleans-
ing had been necessary.
Conjectures were coupled to the fact, learned from the
ribald jokes of the guards as well as from prisoners who
had spent time in the infirmary, that most of the guards
had venereal diseases.
For practically all the prisoners, however, the chance
to take a bath once a week was very important. My father
and I, along with the few others who had survived the
starvation regime, had waited six months or more for that
day, December 28, 1945, when for the first time soap was
distributed, a bath was made available, and we had shaves
and haircuts. For the first time we could wash the bundle
of stained and rotten rags which we called underclothes.
Bathing was so important to us that we could even
manage to live with the typically Soviet bathing regula-
tions. No matter how many men were confined in a cell,
from the luxurious three or four in my case to the ten to
twenty in some others, only one tubful of water was per-
mitted for each cell. For the last man in the tub, this
meant stepping into a mildly tepid mud that reeked of
body dirt. A prisoner not hardened to the system some-
times became ill as he stepped into the tub — and this usu-
ally put an end to bathing for the members of his cell.
To me, using the filthy tub water for bathing was as
absurd as it was repulsive. The drinking water we got in
our cells was the best for "spot cleaning." The water of
the tub was more suitable for washing clothes.
We were permitted now to have our long, matted hair
cut. Barbering was one of the miscellaneous skills my fa-
ther had picked up when he first came to America as a
Seventh Day Adventist missionary during the Depression.
He practiced it before he took up his highly successful
When he told the guards of his skill he was quickly
appointed to the prison barbering staff. This gave us a
perfect chance to meet and talk regularly. My father
became an encyclopedia of prison information.
One thing we learned through him was the inter-
changeability of guards and guarded in the Soviet world.
My father had met the man who had been in charge of
our arrest, the MVD officer Stepanenko. He was no longer
an MVD officer. Now he was a prisoner, like us, in
Munchenerplatz prison. He had been jailed as a direct
result of his role in our arrest. From our home, where we
kept a reserve stock, protected from possible air raids,
Stepanenko had confiscated six hundred cameras. Then,
as he explained freely, he had put the cameras on the
black market. He was performing, after all, a simple equa-
tion in black-market economics. But he had been caught
at it — possibly by a superior who felt he should have had
the black-market concession for the cameras.
Stepanenko was not the only MVD officer on the pris-
oner list. The former chief of the prison was now a pris-
It was a mark of how complete a world our prison was
that when a former prison chief or MVD officer became
a prisoner there was no feeling of vengeance toward him.
The prisoners accepted him as they would any prisoner,
realizing, perhaps, that Communists are all captives of a
system more rigid even than prison. When they in turn
were imprisoned, they moved from one world to another
with singular good feelings, it seemed. They showed an
earthy, peasant indifference to their state.
While this was true of those who were jailed for graft
or theft, crimes that meant little to their superiors, I was
later to see that Russians imprisoned for political crimes
quaked with terror. Stepanenko accepted with a shrug his
seven-year sentence for black-market activities; had he
passed an indiscreet remark about the regime, he would
have been put to death.
In January 1946, six months after my arrival at the
prison, I was given my first regular job: carrying water
jugs and buckets and sweeping the prison corridors. My
assignment came about, oddly enough, through Stepa-
nenko, the same who had been in charge of our arrest.
During a regrouping of the prisoners, Stepanenko was
put in charge of allocating new cell positions. Our rela-
tions with him were wholly without bitterness on either
side, and he volunteered to place me as close to my father
as possible. His efforts landed me in a cell adjacent to my
father which was reserved for working prisoners. My as-
signment to that cell brought me onto the work rolls.
After two months of carrying water I fell heir to a
new kind of job, a job that probably was the direct cause
of my not leaving the Soviet prison system for nine years.
I was to keep the prison records, and the work began
when the guards brought a great stack of ledger books,
writing materials, blanks, and other items. I thencefor-
ward kept track of all prisoners, of which prisoners were
in which cells, of their work assignments, of the reasons
(if any) for their arrest, of the names of the MVD inves-
tigating officers, dates of interrogation, and other related
To do all this, and to continue with my old job of food
helper, I had to make a daily round of the entire prison,
with its approximately seven hundred inmates.
Under Russian management, the records had become
an almost hopeless tangle of misfilings and incomplete
information. My administrative training at the camera
factory enabled me, however, to set up the records prop-
erly and quickly. Each day, as the records assumed better
shape and I learned a little more about interrogations,
charges, and the execution of prisoners, I was digging myself
deeper into prison. I was becoming indispensable.
DEATH WAS A DAY-BY-
day statistic in my bookkeeping at Miinchenerplatz prison.
Regularly I received a list of prisoners who were being
ordered to appear before the prison court. The lists were
written in red ink, in keeping with the official color motif
of the Soviet court system. Everything about the system is
red. Red cloths cover the court tables. Red hangings
muffle the rooms.
At Munchenerplatz, the red-draped room used for court
proceedings was kept fairly dark. A long table, covered
with a red cloth, dominated the room, and at this table
the three-man court seated itself. The MVD court mem-
bers were a lieutenant colonel, a major, and a captain.
During the court sessions two candles burned in front of
the lieutenant colonel.
Trials were not held here. Trials were not held any-
where. There was only the reading of charges and the
sentencing. A prisoner was brought into the courtroom,
the door was closed behind him, and he was made to
stand with his back against the door, fifteen feet away
from the long table. Behind the flickering candles, the
lieutenant colonel would read the charges and the sen-
tence. An interpreter standing beside the prisoner would
repeat the words in the language of the "criminal," who
then was told to step forward to the table and sign his
approval. He had been told that, if he did not care to
sign, his refusal would not be held against him. But he
need not worry; if he didn't sign, "someone else will."
The entire paperwork of the sentencing was prepared
in advance; it was merely a matter of reading to the pris-
oner the list of crimes and investigations, then sentencing
him. Whatever the charges or the sentence, the same pro-
cedure obtained. With mechanical informality, a man was
sentenced to a few years in prison, to a life of slavery, or
I came to realize that among the court members there
was a sincere indifference to the sentences. With some,
the indifference was that of tribal Asia, where death is no
more meaningful than a leak in a sod roof. Others had
the trained attitude that death simply was a Soviet instru-
ment of correction. It was the highest form of social hygiene,
not unlike burning away a slum area or cauterizing a wound.
These men felt no passion in sentencing people to death.
They merely were snapping off a light switch.
On two days in June 1946 the sentencing was particu-
larly memorable. The guard brought me the lists, on
which as usual I wrote the cell numbers of the prisoners.
Each day there were between twenty and thirty names in
red; all, whatever the charges, were sentenced to death.
The punishments would ordinarily have been varied to fit
the crimes; but on those two days the members of the
court were hopelessly drunk.
I knew little about theoretical Marxism at that time,
but in this attitude toward death I sensed the gulf that
separated these MVD officers from the Christian civili-
zation to whose extinction they are committed. They be-
lieve that man is an animal, no more. To kill a man is
no more significant than to kill a highly trained horse or
a cow. If the beast becomes unmanageable, it is killed. If
the man-beast becomes unmanageable, he is killed.
Although death sentences were passed every court day,
the executions were carried out once a month. This was more
efficient than shooting the people one by one, as sen-
A prisoner sentenced to death was put on half rations;
since humans are animals, there is little sense in giving
full rations to one that is about to be destroyed.
The squad assigned to bring the prisoners to the place
of execution consisted of a junior-grade MVD lieutenant
and two enlisted guards. Their procedure was standard-
ized and, like the sentencing itself, almost casual. When
the guards came to a cell where a sentenced prisoner was,
they ordered him to remove his clothes. In some cases
they forced him to take off everything, in others, an under-
shirt might be worn. Clothes that were taken from pris-
oners were heaped on the corridor floor. A guard would
poke through the piles and pick out the good articles. The
rest were turned over to me to distribute.
While the undressing went on, guards and officer would
joke and laugh, usually over what they thought the pris-
oners might do to their underwear if permitted to wear
it to their death. What a waste of laundering it would be,
In that joking was summed up a startling difference
between these guards and the Nazi death squads about
which those prisoners who had known both sometimes
spoke. The Nazis, they said, killed viciously, because they
were convinced that the people being killed were actually
their enemies. The Russians killed because, almost liter-
ally, a number had been drawn from a hat, because some
meaningless document in some meaningless proceedings
had said to snuff out the candle. No ferocity attended the
executions. The reasons for the killings were as remote
and irrelevant to the Russian guards as was the concept
of death itself. Their joking, then, was not forced. When
they patted a prisoner's shoulder, the action came easily.
Life had to end for certain integers in the state table of
statistics. That's all, comrade. Nothing personal, comrade.
Horribly, the laughter of the guards marked those days
more than did the sounds of the killings themselves.
The process of execution, about which the guards some-
times boasted because it was so "humane," was simplicity
itself. After a condemned prisoner had undressed, he was
led to a partly shattered wing of the prison. As he rounded
the corner into a corridor of the wing, a guard shot him
in the back of the head. It was "humane," because it came
As each prisoner was shot, his body was dragged to
the end of the corridor. By the end of a day's killing, a
stack of sprawling bodies, naked or in undershirts, stood
in the dark and dirty hall. A guard doused the bodies
with gasoline and tossed on a match. The flames from the
pyre made a light that often was seen by prisoners in
other parts of the building. A guard, if questioned, would
explain that trash was being burned.
As the smoke from the burning bodies drifted from
the execution corridor into other parts of the prison, it
was difficult to make anyone believe that it was anything
but exactly what it was. On execution days, in many cells
not even the pitiful scraps that passed for rations were
One execution day the flames from the cindering
corpses rose higher than usual, perhaps because of an
extravagant drenching with fuel. From the burning bodies
the flames licked up and caught the wood trim, moldings,
and sashes of the corridor. The guards, idly watching the
blaze till now, ran for aid. My helper and I were called
out to haul a hose up to extinguish the flames, but we
were not permitted to turn the corner into the corridor
itself. The guards carried the hose into the death corridor
and flushed the flames from the grisly torch they had set.
To some prisoners the walk in the corridor probably
was a relief, as humane as the Russians said it was. These
were the prisoners who had been tortured. For some time,
I had known only the sounds of torture. But I learned,
as I came to know more about the prison during my
records-keeping job, what it was that produced the shrieks
The most common form of torture was the beating
with strips of thick, lead-wrapped, electric installation
pipe, covered with heavy insulation. They were about
one third of an inch wide and two feet long. It was not
uncommon to see guards strolling around with these
whips in their hands. In the interrogation rooms, how-
ever, the pipes were put to their harshest use.
The questioning involved the victim, an investigating
MVD officer, and an interpreter. Oddly enough, it also
usually involved the proposition that the victim was inno-
cent of whatever charge the Communists had brought
against him and to which they wanted him to confess. The
regularity with which this was true seemed at first a night-
mare, without rhyme or reason. I soon learned, though,
how sensible it was, from the Communist point of view.
If a person was indeed guilty of something, the Commu-
nists usually had little trouble proving it. At least, they
had facts enough at hand to warrant a passable charge.
But if the person was innocent, the whip would pound
and lash the desired "guilt" into the person's back
muscles, nerve fibers, mind, and consciousness.
I helped to carry one of the beaten prisoners to his celL
He had been whipped with his shirt on. His skin was laid
open from the ridge of his shoulders all the way to his
belt line, and the shirt had been ground into the raw
meat of his back. For an hour, with the doctor who also
was a prisoner, I picked bits of shredded cloth from the
wounds, trying always to pick bloody cloth rather than
the slivers of split red flesh. When we had finished clean-
ing his back, we wrapped him in strips of toilet paper,
the prison dispensary's gesture toward providing medicine
for the man.
More complex and subtle, and I always have thought
more damaging, was the torture of the disinfecting cabinet.
This was a large, boilerlike metal cabinet in which, under
the German prison administration, mattresses had been
disinfected — a cleanliness undreamed of in any Russian-
administered prison at that time.
Prisoners being moved through the corridors or going
about prison work were able to see this looming presence,
with its high-pressure steam pipes and valves. What they
did not know, if they were new and had not circulated
among the veteran prisoners, was that the disinfecting
tank was no longer connected to receive steam. It was
these new prisoners that went to the tank for their torture.
A prisoner was thrown into the tank by guards who
were being purposefully rough to intimate that severe pun-
ishment was underway. Inside, the terrified prisoner
watched the steel hatch swing shut and heard the boom-
ing clang as the locking mechanism turned and the bolts
seated themselves in their slots.
In the total interior darkness, the prisoner could only
expect a searing jet of steam or a choking cloud of poi-
sonous gas to be pumped in. And so he would be left
for a full day or two, the door never being opened.
After this ordeal, several prisoners were taken from
the tank completely mad. No person ever emerged without
serious nervous consequences. Most came out of it with
hair turned gray. All were willing to confess to whatever
the Communists wished them to confess.
Another psycho-physical torture method was used of
which I had heard, although I never saw the place where
it was carried out. I have, however, seen prisoners brought
back from it. A deep pit, possibly used at one time as part
of a drainage or garbage-disposal system in the prison,
was filled with water to knee height. The victim was
placed in this pit, standing with his clothes on. Every
half hour a pail of water was thrown over him. First there
was the tense waiting, and then the wet shock. Both
grew progressively worse. As the water level rose, by pail-
fuls, from knees, to hips, to waist, a slow horror welled
within the man. Finally he was ready to confess anything
that was expected of him.
The very system of Communist arrests inevitably led
to a system of torture that was as much mental as physi-
cal. Arrests were made to terrorize the citizens, in sweep-
ing, indiscriminate raids. Men were arrested as they
walked the streets, as they dined or sat in the homes of
friends. They were arrested anywhere, anytime, without
explanation. Everyone in the city was kept poised on the
edge of terror.
There was a plan to it all, and it was remarkably effec-
tive even beyond its terrorizing results. When a load of
prisoners newly yanked from home and street were thrown
into cells, the first topic of speculation naturally was "Why
was I arrested?" They would search their memories for
minor infractions and even for unvoiced thoughts antago-
nistic to the Communists. A cell full of prisoners might
talk for hours about these things, elaborating upon point
after point, seeking always a clue to their arrest. There
was, of course, no clue. But in every cell was a Commu-
nist police informer, patiently listening as the prisoners
spelled out possible grounds for Communist charges. It
was the unfortunates who could find absolutely no reason
whatever for their arrests that were passed on to the body-
and-mind-racking torments of lash and tank and pit.
. A torture of humiliation for us all was the regular weekly
search, when guards would sweep through the prison and
pick over our personal belongings. These had been thrown
to the floor, and contraband or any article that might seem
desirable to the guards was taken. We then were forced to
kneel down and sort out our pitiful belongings. To see the
paltry scraps of one's only personal life — shreds of soap,
a wad of toilet paper, a saved crust, an extra pair of torn
socks — thrown on the floor and then to have to scramble for
them was a brutalizing experience. I came to dread it as
others must have dreaded an expected new ordeal with the
The severity of these searches depended upon what
day of the week they were carried out. In midweek they
were routine and without incident. The guards came in,
belongings were heaped, and the recovery scramble began.
But if an additional search was held, on Friday or Sat-
urday, beatings and other abuses were added. This was
a result of the MVD indoctrination course. Every Friday,
all MVD officers and guards were assembled for ideo-
logical lectures. After the lectures, the guards toured the
cells, grabbing prisoners at random, asking incredible
questions, and administering beatings to any who could
not answer — and no one ever could. If, during these ses-
sions, a search was ordered, every cell could expect a
hard time. The guards would take special pains to rip
and tear the articles they threw to the floor. They walked
over things, crushing, perhaps, a treasured pair of glasses'
or other breakable object. When prisoners stooped to pick
up their things, the guards might kick them. Prisoners
were thrown bodily from cells and smashed against walls.
There seemed to be only one defense at these times
of special abuse. Prisoners who cringed before the guards
were kicked, beaten, spat upon. Prisoners who suddenly
turned on the guards and struck out at them were taken
away for hours of extreme torture or were killed. But those
men fared best who went through the indignities calmly and
stoically, without cringing or losing their tempers, apparently
with an inner conviction that the Communist animal terror
could not break them. The Communists could not cope
with men, it seemed to me, who insisted on remaining more
than the animals which Communists regard men to be.
Day after day I witnessed the torment and terror dealt
out to my fellow prisoners. I, myself, being too useful to
be submitted to more than the common humiliations,
never knew when my turn might suddenly come. My work
kept me busy from 7:00 a.m. to past midnight, and I
had little time to let my thoughts wander too far back
or too far ahead. I was aware, of course, that I nevei
could leave this prison without undergoing the investi-
gational process. On the one hand I dreaded to see it
come, because it was bound to involve terror and ill treat-
ment. On the other hand, I preferred an end, with fear,
to fear without end. All that could save me from either
was a change in system, but what prospect was there of
The time came when a wave of efficiency swept through
Munchenerplatz prison. The fact that prisoners had been
there for months without sentencing had finally been
brought to the commandant's attention by an aide. This
aide, ironically, had been thrown into a cell for a time
as punishment for some indiscretion. It was then that I
had a chance to talk with him and mention the growing
backlog of unsentenced prisoners. That I, for instance,
had been in for thirteen months came as a distinct sur-
prise to him. When he was released, he relayed my infor-
mation to the commandant. Within a few days all my
records were ordered ready for inspection.
MVD General Klebov himself showed up to handle
the inspection. He set up office in a storeroom, and
through one whole night long lines of prisoners stood,
waiting for an interview with Klebov's staff as the sentenc-
ing procedure was reviewed. After that, a new system of
interrogations was established: they were carried out in
shifts. Within two weeks all but 250 prisoners had either
been executed or sent to concentration camps to serve
The thought that my turn to be interrogated was in-
eyftably approaching was constantly with me. When it
came, it would mean execution or transfer, I could not
decide which. I knew it would be one or the other, of
course, for my keeping of all the prison personnel records
made me aware that the Communists hardly would let
me off scot free. I had personally checked the files of
21,000 prisoners at Munchenerplatz, and I knew that
murder and torture were the most common alternatives.
When my turn for questioning under the speed-up sys-
tem did arrive, I knew that the Communists were well
aware of how much I had seen. It was little use trying to
pretend, as I so earnestly did pretend, that the records-
keeping job had made no serious impact on me.
The questioning officer went through a maze of routine
questions. Then, with a casualness that was obvious, he
asked what I had heard of my mother and brother and
what was going on in our factory. When I tried to avoid
giving a straight answer, he interrupted me:
"John, you know exactly what the situation is. You
speak to every newcomer here when you make out his
records. You know where your mother is and you know
exactly what is being produced in your father's factory.**
No accusations were laid against me, and on sending
me back into the prison hall the interrogator told me
that they merely wanted to look into my case a little more
A few days later the duty sergeant came to me and(
said, "That's all now, John. Hand over all the papers and
we'll find someone else to do this work."
The thought came to me that he might be working to
get me locked up again, for I once had warned him about
robbing our cells and taking essential property from the
prisoners for his personal use.
I was left to myself, but not for long. At 6:00 o'clock
on the morning of August 31, 1946, a guard came to my
cell, pulled me out of sleep, and said, "Take all your
things, John. You're going away."
"Where to?" was my immediate question.
"You probably know better than I do where all those
transports go," he replied. Then, as he looked at my puz-
zled face, he must have known what I was thinking.
"Yes," he said, "your father is going with you."
This, under the circumstances, was a happy surprise.
Usually they liked to separate relatives and send them, to
The guard led me along the hall and down the steps
to the first floor. As I passed a certain door, I stopped for
a second to look at it once again. Hundreds of men had
walked through it naked, or nearly so, in their last min-
ute of life. A few others, including myself, also had passed
through that door occasionally, accompanied by guards
We were looking for prisoners' old clothes, blankets,
sheets, aprons, and other articles. That part of the building
was quite destroyed.
Once, I came a little closer to the execution depart-
ment than prisoners were permitted to do, but the guard
was friendly and he let me look. I saw only a smoke-
stained end of a corridor. I acted as if I were not inter-
ested, and I searched from cell to cell for clothing. Blood-
stained rags I found which, variously, were once the uni-
forms of prisoners of war, Danish streetcar conductors,
and Dutch postoffice clerks. Also there were civilian
clothes, as bloody as the rest, no doubt remnants of the
closing days of World War II, when bloodshed was great-
est. One system did not differ too much from another.
I recalled another time, also, when I passed through
that door. I came to the bombed-out end and looked out
over a pile of rubble at people walking along the street
only yards away. The guard was in another wing, and
I could have jumped over the rocks and run out of sight
in seconds, but I realized at once that, in reprisal, my
father would have been put to death in the smoke-stained
As on this last day of August I looked at that door, the
guard stepped toward me and said in schoolbook Ger-
man, nodding in the direction of the exit, "Schnell aus-
I HAD TWO BLANKETS,
three sheets, a set of work clothes, my business suit, a pair
of slippers I had made from scraps of discarded blankets,
and my shoes. Secretly, I had some inch-long bits of lead
from the pencils I had used in my prison job and some
tightly folded bits of paper. Finally, I had a short piece of
string. I used this as a belt, tying together the front loops
of my trousers with it.
A guard brought me to the main hall, where other
prisoners — men and women — were waiting. There was no
talking. The people sat on their bundles, if they had any;
If not, they stood uneasily or sat on the floor. No one
looked at another prisoner. No one knew what was going
to happen. No one, by an expression on the face or by a
glance, wanted to intimate the smallest speculation as to
where he was going to be sent. It was the suspended
animation of change in a prison. Everyone was hanging
over the unknown, wishing perhaps that he could wait
forever and never have to learn what might lie ahead.
The guards searched our belongings (missing my pa-
per and pencil leads) and lined us up against the far wall.
As the line grew, other prisoners were brought in. One
was my father. I tried not to watch as his things were
spilled on the floor, rooted through, and pitched back to
him, He joined the line, and when the searching was fin-
ished, about forty men and women were there, silent and
We were taken by bus to the prison camp at Muhlberg,
forty miles north along the Elbe. My first sight of the
place told me that henceforth I would be seeing Soviet
prison life stripped to its essentials, without any of the
"refinements" offered by a city prison such as Dresden's.
As the bus slowed, approaching the wire boundaries of
the Muhlberg prison camp, we could see a huge wooden
cart being pulled from the camp toward an adjoining
field by about fifty prisoners. On the cart was a vast
Wooden tub, about twenty feet long. From the high win-
dows of the bus we could see that it was filled to the top
with human excrement. I learned later that the reeking
mass was from the latrines within the camp. Every few
days the tub was filled from individual pails and hauled
to the field for dumping into an open pit. There, as I was
to find out, relatives of prisoners would wait — after brib-
ing the guards — for a chance to pass on packages to those
inside the camp.
The method was simple. The packages were tossed into
the excrement tub. When it was hauled back inside the
camp, prisoners expecting packages would claw down
into the bottom of the tub to find their gifts. The reeking,
dripping condition of the packages made no difference
to them. New prisoners, sometimes, were sickened. But
they got used to it after a while.
As we dismounted from the bus, inside the prison area,
it was obvious that some of the prisoners had virtually
lost the ability to walk without specific directions being
given to them. There was no question about where we
were supposed to go: a group of MVD officers waited for
us outside a prison building. But most prisoners just
milled together, soundlessly, eyes downcast, rather than
follow the guards toward the waiting officers. They had
to be shoved and shouted into line and on their way.
I realized once again that death was the least thing to
fear under the conditions of captivity by the Reds.
Just inside the compound there were long wooden
benches. On these we spread our belongings for another
search. This time a few of the better blankets and shirts
disappeared. Not all the searching was done by MVD
personnel. Prisoners, wearing red brassards, officiously
scattered our belongings also. These were the trusted pris-
oners, to whom the MVD assigned certain duties. It was
easy to see why they were trusted, for they were men who
had been picked up as criminals and wanted to wash off
their guilt. By cooperating with the MVD, they would
win the rewards of power, extra rations, and earlier release
— if they wanted it.
After the search we were conducted to barracks 32.
We were to have our first experience of barracks prison,
as contrasted with cell prison. The building, of rough
planking, was about 220 feet long and perfectly bare in-
side. A few windows lighted the place. Along the white-
washed walls wooden shelves ran, about six feet wide.
These were our beds. One shelf went along the wall at a
height of about three feet, another about three feet above
that. Wooden ladders, fastened at intervals, gave access
to the upper tier. There was space for about 150 men on
the shelves; our group, when the women were separated,
numbered about thirty. Everyone took a luxuriously large
space on the lower bench.
Two coal-burning stoves warmed the barracks. Divid-
ing the barracks down the center was a partitioned area
'with a concrete floor; in this was a long trough for wash-
ing clothes and a space for serving food.
No. 32 was a quarantine barracks, and our stay there
lasted ten days. My father and I were assigned to No. 10,
which was jammed. There was space for us only on the
top shelf, and even so we slept touching the men on either
side of us.
One compensation made these first days at Muhlberg
pass rather easily. My father and I had hours in which
to talk together. We did not speak any more of release,
beyond comparing notes on past questionings. Those to
which my father had been subjected, he said, emphasized
a line of interrogation that was both frustrating and re-
vealing. Time after time, MVD questioners had doggedly
tried to break what to them was the "mystery" of how my
father had come to be the owner of a large and obviously
prosperous factory in Germany. Clearly, the Russians
thought it was part of a plot, for nothing in their expe-
riences corresponded to a situation such as this.
My father was born in Germany as Charles Spank-
nobel. He changed the name to Noble after becoming an
American citizen. He was a shoemaker by trade, but his
preference clearly lay toward the activities of the Seventh
Day Adventist Church, of which his parents were mem-
bers. As a young man, therefore, he enrolled in an Adven-
tist missionary school. He was graduated just in time to
be drafted by the German army for service in the first
World War. In keeping with the policy of his church, how-
ever, he refused combat service and was ordained a min-
ister. At one point he was assigned to Switzerland as a
missionary. There, my brother George was born. From
Switzerland, with George and my mother, he was sent to
America to preach in the Adventist churches. To pay him
adequately for this, however, was too great a luxury for
the beleaguered church, and my mother, to help out, capi-
talized on her hobby, photography, and found a job in
a photo finisher's shop in Detroit. The Depression was on,
business was bad, and the proprietor wanted to close up.
My mother, the last employee to stay on, was prepared
to do what she could to keep the business going. The pro-
prietor was killed in an accident in the West, and the busi-
ness was scheduled to be sold. My father managed to
scrape money together to buy it, and they put their heads
together to try and make a go of it.
The venture worked out well, and by the early 1930s
we were perfectly solvent. My father was even able to go
back to Germany for treatment of a serious gall-bladder
ailment. While there, he invested wisely in industrial prop-
erties. In 1937 he bought the KW-Praktiflex camera fac-
tory in Dresden. A year later he brought the entire family
over so that they could be with him while he got things
started. Also, with this arrangement, he would be able to
complete a projected two- or three-year treatment of his
disability. Then war trapped us.
That was all there was to it, but it was beyond the con-
cepts of the MVD. They were convinced that we were in
league with the Nazis, with the American warmongers, with
somebody sinister. How otherwise could one own a fac-
MUHLBERG WAS LIKE A
^ast sewer, with rotten things, the prisoners, floating in it.
Rottenness seemed to touch almost everybody.
The filthiness of the prison and its inmates caused boils
and lesions, which, according to rumor, could be cured
if scraped and then laved with human urine. It was not
uncommon to see a man hunched at the end of the trough
that carried urine from the latrine to an open cesspool
outside. The man had so positioned himself that the urine
would flow over his sores. The "cure" often developed into
a horror of infections.
Sexual practices, both normal and abnormal, were
crude and animalistic. Homosexuality was rife through-
out all the camp and among both sexes, particularly the
younger people. When an entire barracks building had
been turned over, as an experiment, to an indoctrination
course in communism, the young men whom the Russians
hoped to instruct demonstrated that they had no interest
in any ism but homosexualism. They were brutal in their
performance, unmanageable as a group, and immune to
Muhlberg's "normal" sexual activity centered for the
most part in barracks 12, which was used as a storehouse
and a sewing room for the repair of flour sacks. By and
large, it was very well managed. I had fleeting opportu-
| Officers' Quarters |
| Dentist | Q
| Dispensary j |
VI | | | Morgue
] | Surgery |
"I I Hospital I
-J L Kitchen J
nities of visiting it, to pick up onions and other store sup-
plies, having volunteered to work in the food-supply sys-
tem of the camp. Scores of other prisoners, I can attest,
had time for more extended visits.
Ten girls were assigned to barracks 12 as seamstresses
to repair the flour sacks which were a vital item of prison
economy. Whether the girls were picked by guards al-
ready familiar with their sexual prowess, or whether good
raw material was sent to be trained, as it were, on the
job, I never learned. But each of the ten girls was a
whore of consequence.
Two guards were assigned to barracks 12. The unvary-
ing daily routine was that the guards should be taken
care of first, on the flour sacks in the rear of the building.
After that, the guards seemed to have no interest what-
ever in the traffic flow in and out of barracks 12. Fortu-
nately for those of us who had time only to eat, to devour
an onion hungrily and thankfully, they also were lax
about watching for stolen things.
The price of sexual services in barracks 12 was meas-
ured in food. Money had little meaning. Indeed, one of
the girls was called Drittel Brot, Third of a Loaf, which
was her price. Onions and flour, which were stored right
there, in the barracks, had little standing as currency.
Pastries, made on smuggled time with smuggled flour by
the prison cooks, were the real gold pieces.
Yet, for all the food that the girls wanted, it was obvi-
ous that sex itself was an independent appetite. For the
sturdy prisoner with no food but with a raging passion,
there was always a girl willing to throw herself on the
flour sacks free. Sometimes, as partial payment for such
charity, the lusting prisoner had to submit to letting the
other girls watch, and perhaps joke or comment on his
One of the leaders of the sewing circle was known as
the False Countess, because she boasted of having been
arrested during her wedding to a Polish count. She was
quite ugly but was possessed of an energy that apparently
impressed the Russian guards. Indeed, given the choice
between a beautiful woman who was passive or, perhaps,
who required persuasion, and one who, like the False
Countess, was ugly but shy of underthings and great for
sitting on steps, the Russians almost invariably chose the
indelicate but available.
The False Countess was not only available but aggres-
sively so. With another of the barracks- 12 girls who was
nicknamed, for subtle anatomical reasons, The Horse,
she was arrested for rape on the charge of a guard who
said that the pair had grabbed him, thrown him to the
floor, and ravished him as he made his inspection of the
barracks. After three days in the camp prison the two
girls began a thriving practice among the guards there.
Women guards then were placed at their cell. The two
girls escaped. Their first act was to fling themselves into a
pond and call for help. A young prisoner working on the
bank splashed in after them, but before he had gotten them
out of the shallow water, the girls had torn his pants off.
Once, when I went into barracks 12 for supplies, I saw
a new girl there, British and quite good looking. On sub-
sequent trips I noticed that she always was hard at work
sewing. She seemed an amazing exception to the table of
organization in barracks 12. The reason for this I soon
learned. In another prison she had been saved from
death by a Russian woman doctor, who had later taken
her on as a maid. After a few weeks, the Russian ex-
plained an additional service she wanted the girl to per-
form, namely, to whip her. The Russian woman's sexual
abnormality consisted of a desire to be whipped. After a
while, the British girl came to share it. Hence her distinctive
conduct in barracks 12.
The commandant of the prison was a proper person
for the job, a sick man in a sick place. His delight was
theatrical entertainment, but it was far from a healthy
delight. Prisoners with entertainment background were
carefully screened out of each incoming roster. If their
act or skill required props, guards would be sent to fetch
The director of a Leipzig nightclub was in charge of
camp entertainment. Each night he delivered a stageful
of acts for the commandant and his staff. Jugglers, sing-
ers, dancers, anyone who could perform in any way were
ordered on stage. Some sang or danced in their filthy
prison clothes. Next might come a ballerina, her legs
hunger-shrunken to knotted sticks but her tutu as neat
as the petals of a flower. The horrid contrasts on the stage
didn't seem to bother the commandant. At each act, good,,
bad, or indifferent, he applauded along with his staff.
That wasn't the worse part, though. Behind the Rus-
sians in the theater each night were rows of prisoners, ad-
mitted to give the theater a gala, packed look. Besides,
stinking, the prisoners were starving. But nothing mattered
to the commandant; not the prisoners, some dying, who
performed on the stage, nor the skeletal ranks in the rows
After a while, the commandant felt the urge for a new,,
brick theater to replace the old wooden structure. Pris-
oners, of course, built it. Several died at the work. All were:
beaten to speed things along. But the commandant had his
shows, each night.
Carefully sewn into one of the belt loops of my pants
was a 1000-mark note that I had managed to keep with
me from the time of our arrest. My father and I heard
that cigarets could be bought from the guards if one had
money. Neither of us smoked but we knew that with ciga-
rets we could barter for food. One entire day's ration of
bread could be purchased from the camp bakery's black
market for one cigaret.
The 1000-mark note began to represent a storehouse
waiting to be tapped. My father and I had never even tried
to bribe our way past a head waiter, but now we began
to concentrate on converting money into bread.
One by one, my father and I casually questioned prison-
ers. Did anyone know of a way to get cigarets for German
currency? We found our man. The going rate, he said,
was one mark per cigaret — but a 1000-mark transaction
was too great a risk. The source of the cigarets? A Rus-
sian guard, of course.
Finally we arrived at a workable agreement. We would
get 200 cigarets and the guard would obtain change. The
go-between was to get 200 marks. For a moment we wor-
ried about the possibility that the guard or the go-between
would simply take our money and that would be that.
But we realized that such an action would be short-
sighted for shrewd businessmen, and the guards were just
that. Running the risk of spoiling a long-term lucrative
traffic for one quick profit would be absurd. The notion
that Communist adherence to anti-capitalist principle
would hinder such a transaction never occurred to us: so
far, we had not met a single guard who seemed in any
way involved with Communist ideology. They were simply
guards. They could have been guarding the prisoners of
any system, capitalist, Communist, Socialist, Fascist, and
would have behaved the same.
The day for the big trade arrived. We turned over the
1000-mark note. The go-between went off to meet his
Russian friend. He was back at dusk. He had our cigarets
all right, but he also had a new arrangement. Instead of
change, which we really didn't want, we would get all our
money in cigarets, over a period of months. The first
installment of 200 was handed over on the spot.
"Think of it," my father said as he picked up the card-
board box in which the cigarets were stacked. "There's
two thirds of a year's bread ration in that box." It seemed
a bit comic.
By October it seemed less comic and more grimly im-
portant than ever. Rations were cut in half. The German
army stores which had been used to feed the prison so
far had finally run out. Now the food had to come from
the Red army itself, and that military colossus simply
didn't have enough to waste on prisoners.
When the cut was announced, most of us blamed it
first of all on Russian arrogance — on not wanting to waste
Russian food on foreigners. Those of us who remained in
the Russian prison system soon discovered a different
reason. It was part of the harsh, hollow truth of the So-
viet. The country is insufficient in all respects, in food, in
production of its resources, in industry. There simply isn't
enough of anything — except political indoctrination and
power — to go around. The Soviet Union is a land of short-
ages and of hungers.
It is strong only in its ability to awe the rest of the
world and to bluff its way to a position of dominance. For
the prisoners, it was an academic question as to how the
Soviet was strong enough to hold its prisoners from every
land on earth. It was enough that it could be done and
was being done.
When the food cut was put into effect, the cigaret price
of bread jumped by four. Still, the cigaret fortune we had
acquired kept us going rather well. Some 400 cigarets
had been delivered to us by Christmas time, and we felt
we could splurge on a bonus of fifty to a cook who prom-
ised to provide extra rations every day, beginning with
It was while we were waiting for our black-market treat
that I saw the procession of the dead through the camp.
It was an extraordinary march. Seventy-two persons who
had died on Christmas Eve were being carried by other
prisoners to a trenchlike grave outside the prison area.
I looked at each of the corpses being carried past,
and at each of the prisoners carrying them. It was just
light enough to see each man clearly; between the features
of the living and those of the dead I could hardly distin-
guish: shrunken faces, empty eyes, and gray, ashen skin.
The procession passed by the only tree in camp, a
conifer in front of the prison staff building. The tree had
seemed a symbol of Christmas. Seeing it now, as the dead
passed by it, I became sickened by the thought of our
Christmas dinner. For every one of our black-market
cigarets, I realized, we had taken food that might have
gone to someone else — perhaps to one of the dead men
I had just seen.
I spoke to my father about it, and we agreed to canctt
our black-market arrangements. The privilege we had
bought had not been bought with cigarets, really. It had
been bought with greed and thoughtlessness.
I ate alone that night in the stable, where the prison's
work animals were kept. There were grain husks spilled
on the floor. They seemed more than enough.
RISING ABOVE THE
squalor and even degeneracy of Muhlberg was the dedi-
cation of two groups of men, the clergy and the physi-
cians. The Catholic priests and Protestant ministers did
far more than attend, under greatest difficulties, to their
proper churchly duties — masses said quickly in the corner
of a barracks, a sermon preached and a hymn softly sung
behind the latrines. The priests and ministers performed
their greatest work, I think (for those who had not be-
come oblivious, rutting, feeding animals), by their hu-
mility. No job was too mean for them. To the humility of
each job, whether amid the filth of the latrines or the mud
outdoors, these men brought the sure and tremendous
dignity of their faith.
If there was one species of armor, and one alone, that
I could unhesitatingly say would turn the assaults of brain-
washing and misery and terror of slave and prison camps,
I would say that that armor was a sure knowledge of God.
Without that rocklike faith, men or women entering Red
slavery become no more than what the Communists say
all men are, animals.
Another strong force of dedication was that of the doc-
tors in the camp. In their work they expressed in the
highest and noblest degree the oath that all doctors have
sworn to live by. In Muhlberg, the imprisoned German
doctors sustained and mended the wretched threads of
life with, literally, love, bare hands, and kitchen knives.
The sacrifices they made were beyond reason and public
responsibility. They were the expressions of individual
charity in the true, loving sense of that word.
Our prison diet alone would barely maintain life in a
strong person of good constitution. For the weak, aged,
and infirm, the diet was a death sentence. Yet many of
these people lived, walking skeletally on the edge of star-
vation and collapse. It was the doctors, with jury-rigged
implements and medicines, who kept them in this world.
The doctors, as a group, had been permitted to take
over the rooms which, under the German operation of
Miihlberg, had been an infirmary but which, under the
Russians, had become barracks and storage space. The
Russians permitted this arrangement with the doctors
through no humanitarian motives. Rather, they saw that
they themselves might need medical attention, and the
doctors attached to the Red army were trained to about
the level of medical corpsmen or first-aid workers. They
stood in open awe of the German doctors and were, sin-
cerely, I think, anxious to learn from them. The Russians
often spoke of their outstanding medical-research figures,
but their boasts amounted to praise for a mere handful
of men, which in all probability comprised the entire top
level of Russian medicine. As in so much else of Russia's
technology and science, there were only two levels — a top
level of great excellence but representing a very few per-
sons and a normal level of little skill comprising the
(At Miihlberg, for instance, all prisoners with aeronau-
tical-design experience were given a chance for extra
rations by joining a research project. The prisoners were
given instruments and drawing tables and were told to
work on certain design problems which, presumably, had
already defeated Russia's sketchy technology. One pris-
oner who had only a meager training in aeronautical en-
gineering was, nevertheless, able to fool the Russian super-
visors completely and enjoy extra rations while doodling
at his drawing board.)
If a Russian officer became ill, he knew that the only
responsible medical treatment would be available from
the German doctors. The Russian "doctors" were ade-
quate, perhaps, for the enlisted personnel, but the officers
were realistic enough to want genuine medical attention.
Despite the Russians' self-interest, however, there was
pathetically little to turn over to the doctors for their use
besides the space of the old infirmary. There were a very
few old surgical instruments, one battered operating table,
and a few stained cartons of medical supplies that had
somehow escaped the Russians' systematic looting of all
German medical installations.
Even with the scanty equipment at hand, however, the
doctors turned the shambles into a hospital. It was not ill-
ness alone that they had to handle. There was the more
insidious and prevalent plague of weakness and malnu*
trition. A foremost need was for proteins and vitamins to
fill in the nutritional gaps of a sparse, starchy diet.
The proteins were obtained from human hair. Each
day, bundles of hair, clipped from shaggy prisoners, were
brought to the doctors. With the pressure-and-heat sys-
tems that they had strung together out of old tubings and
electrical coils and with the chipped residue of the infir-
mary's lab equipment, the doctors processed the hair into
a protein extract.
For vitamin supplements, the doctors relied heavily
upon pine needles. These were stripped from the trees
brought into the camp for the preparation of ersatz wood-
My first experience inside the infirmary came in Feb-
ruary. While climbing a stockroom ladder, carrying a
100-kilogram sack of grain, I slipped and fell, injuring
my foot. When I found that I couldn't walk, I was taken
to the infirmary. One of the doctors exclaimed, half jok-
ingly, to see such a healthy specimen brought in. What
impressed him was my weight. By working in the stock-
room and availing myself of the perquisites of the job —
an onion here, a potato there, a handful of grain — I had
boosted my weight to a "fat" 100 pounds, a mere fifty
pounds or so below my normal weight. Earlier, I had been
down to ninety-five pounds, a more normal figure for the
prison and a weight at which I later was to remain for
While in the infirmary, waiting for my foot to heal, I
was stricken with appendicitis. Before the opening of the
infirmary, this would have been a death sentence. I knew
now there was hope, although I also knew that if the
doctors operated they would have to do so with instru-
ments more suitable to a kitchen. But men who can dis-
till life from hair and pine needles are somehow expected
to be performers of magic in all circumstances.
I was taken into the operating room shortly after the
first convulsion of pain flooded down my side. The room
was spotlessly clean, even though its walls were chipped
and flaked, its floor splintered and warped, and its win-
dows gaping. A bare light bulb hung above the operating
table. There were no such luxuries as sheets to hide the
battered old table, its scabs of rust meticulously scraped
off and its wheels and levers held in place by knots of wire
and old nails.
The few instruments that had been left in the infirmary
were lined up; beside them were the ones that the doctors
had made themselves. Clamps to hold back incisions had
been devised from strips of tin can, bent and hammered
into shape, the jagged edges providing a grip. On the
clamps, bits of string substituted for chains. Scalpels had
been made from jackknives and saw blades, painstakingly
ground and honed to the best edge they could hold.
Fortunately, there was a hypodermic needle among the
left-over supplies. With this I was given a spinal anaes-
thetic. Only after the operation did I understand why the
doctors had sounded so concerned as they asked me if the
anaesthetic was working.
When the operation was over, the doctors told me the
spinal anaesthetic had been part of a batch brought in by
a Red officer on whom they had operated. They used a
portion of it, having no way of knowing whether it was
good or even how much to inject. The labels were so
weathered that they couldn't be read, and there was only
the Russian's word that it even was an anaesthetic.
The doctors also told me that I was the proud possessor
of some of the first honest sutures they had been able to
use since starting surgery in the camp. Previously, sutures
had been fashioned from the thin wire of electrical heat
ing coils, clipped and straightened. Mine had been made
from catgut. More important, they confided, mine was
the first operation that had been performed without any
These doctors, from some of the finest hospitals and
research staffs in the world, seemed as proud of having
conquered the problems of kitchen-knife surgery, of keep-
ing flies off open incisions, as if they had won a collective
Nobel Prize. To the prisoners, they had won more pre-
cious prizes, many times over.
THE SLOW, TERRIBLE
odyssey toward the Arctic and slavery began to move
faster even before I had fully recovered from the opera-
Signs of change began to rustle in the camp like leaves
before a storm. On the day of my release from the hos-
pital, a gateway messenger picked me up and took me
to the gate, and from there I was sent to the prison's spe-
cial confinement dungeon. My pockets were emptied.
Again a riveted door clanged shut on me. For the first
day no one came to the cell except at feeding time, and
then all I got for my "why?" was a mute shrug of the
For the next three days the visits were more frequent
but the answers just as nonexistent. Twenty or more
times each day my cell door was opened by a guard — al-
ways a different one. The routine was the same. "Ger-
man?" the guard would ask. "Amerikanitz," I would
reply in one of the very few words of Russian I had
Word had spread through the camp that an American
was in the dungeon. All the guards wanted to see for
themselves. I suppose that it was a great symbol, for them,
of their fatherland's power. It was a great symbol of that
power for the prisoners as well.
On the fourth day, an officer named Narajanov called
me into the corridor. Almost mechanically he began to
fire questions at me. When had I been in the city of Miihl-
berg? When had I been to Burgsdorf, the camp's railway
station? When had I ever been outside the camp to go any-
The answer to all was "never," and I had no idea why
the questions even had been asked. They seemed meaning-
less. Narajanov grunted at my answers, shoved me back
in the cell, and strode away.
For twenty-three days I was able to lie in the cell and
wonder about the questions. There was little else to do.
The cell measured six by three feet, the size of a closet.
A cot took up almost all the floor space. The walls were
a dead white, and outside the door a 400-watt bulb glared
day and night until the white of the walls seemed to seep
through every part of my brain.
After a while the attempt to ignore the light brought
on a most acute form of awareness of its unblinking pres-
ence. No physical discomfort in the cell was nearly as bad.
Between the walls of each two cells there was a metal
slot in which wood or coal fires could be built to heat
the cells. Fires were got going in the slot about seven in
the morning. By noon the walls were too hot to get near,
and I gasped in the humid heat, wet with perspiration.
In the evening the fires were permitted to go out, and the
outer doors to the cell corridors were opened to let the
freezing winds whip through. We had no blankets. Each
night was a chattering, cold, huddled horror. Each day
was a hot, heavy prelude to the freezing night.
On the twenty-third day, Narajanov ordered me
brought to the staff building. My knee, swollen as an after-
math of the operation and the spinal injection, and un-
exercised in the cell, made the walk to the building a tor-
ture. The guard who accompanied me didn't even notice
as I grunted and shuffled, almost dragging one leg. Most
prisoners had some locomotive defect, from weakness
or injury. Mine was just one of many.
In Narajanov's office I was amazed to hear exactly the
same three questions that he had asked me in the corridor
by my cell. Then, after the familiar grunt, he added one
other: had I ever written to anyone outside the prison?
With my astonished "no," he had me taken back to the
barracks. I was "free." I was out of the dungeon and back
to the normal world of the prison camp. And that was
exactly the way I felt. All thoughts of real freedom had
This was freedom now. Being able to move more than
six feet before facing a wall. Being able to speak to oth-
ers. Being able to huddle beneath one's own blanket.
(Many months later, from another prisoner, and in an-
other prison camp, I learned why I had been sent to the
dungeon. A letter had come to the camp addressed to:
Mr. Charles A. Noble
and Mr. John H. Noble
c/o Lt. Coin. Saisikov
Camp No. —
I have never discovered the origin of that letter; all I
know is that, according to the stamp, it came from the
United States. But it is obvious why the letter should have
disturbed the prison officials. It meant that someone,
somewhere, was aware of our location. And, by the logic
of a terror state, it was very dangerous that anyone should
know the whereabouts of a man who handled more than
20,000 Soviet police dossiers in a German prison, some-
one who had been around to count the murders, the kid-
napings, the tortures, and the starvations.)
As 1947 ended and I got back into the cocoon routine
of a prisoner, there came the first evidence of a political
fact of life that I was to notice many times afterward.
Through the propaganda of the East German papers that
were permitted to circulate through the prison we knew
that the West had stiffened its back for a moment against
the arrogance of the Soviet. Too, elections of a sort were
to be held in East Germany — bayonet elections, to be sure,
but elections that at least had to have some of the trap-
pings of freedom.
The impact of these things on the prison was apparent.
Food was received in better (if not copious) condition.
Disciplinary raids on the barracks slackened. Every third
day a spoonful of sugar was piled beside our dinner.
Even jam and butter appeared. (When this rich food was
eaten, however, it resulted in violent stomach upsets for
prisoners whose stomachs had lost even a memory of such
The most apparent effect of the outside world's events
was in the release of a few prisoners. They were sent forth
as evidence of Soviet goodwill.
Soon it became obvious that the trickle of releases was
to broaden into a flood. A small enclosure of wire was
strung inside the main camp area to provide a quarantine
area for prisoners about to be released. In that area a few
lectures and some better food were supposed to erase any
hostile memories the prisoners might have. (Some 8000
were under the ground outside our electric fences.)
By mid- 1948 about 7000 prisoners had been released.
Three thousand, including my father and me, remained.
Hope that the remainder also would be released rose sud-
denly, despite the usual prisoner reluctance to be opti-
mistic about anything. A small force of 200 prisoners
was cut away from the main body. Their job, we heard,
was to dismantle the camp. It was being closed!
The fact that the camp was being ended did not mean
our imprisonment was also ending. We were merely being
transferred, and when the location of our new prison was
announced, I do not imagine there was a single prisoner
brutalized enough to be totally numb to the suggested hor-
ror. The new prison was to be Buchenwald.
As we were transferred we could see many airplanes
in the sky. They were the planes of the Berlin airlift, shut-
tling across the skies to bring relief to a beleaguered city.
There were no planes to bring relief to the enslaved and
Buchenwald turned out to be a relatively brief part of
the prison odyssey. My job there was making sand — by
pounding gravel with a carpenter's hammer — and trans-
portation work. There was the same hunger, the same
depravity among many of the prisoners, the same hope-
lessness, the same flarings of brutality, the same deaths
and punishments. Buchenwald had been branded as a vir-
tual Nazi abattoir, yet, from prisoners who had been in
the camp under both the Nazis and the Communists, I
heard repeatedly that things were even worse now.
It was at Buchenwald, as a matter of fact, that I heard
of perhaps the most grossly obscene performance I've ever
known. To gratify the lustiest of the women in the camp —
and at their request — a cobbler-prisoner had rigged an
ample leather phallus to a device built on the frame of a
bicycle. The phallus, attached to an eccentric drive, op-
erated through the seat as the "rider" worked the pedals.
On January 15, 1950, a new release of prisoners began
at Buchenwald. It was like the last camp and the one
before. No one was particularly optimistic. No one was
particularly pessimistic. Even my father who, among all
the prisoners in Buchenwald, had at least had enough
energy left to list his complaints forthrightly when a so-
called "medical inspector" had come by, was overcome
by general listlessness when it came to releases. It always
happened to "the other fellow." It was better to feel that
way. Hope, in these prisons, was just something to disturb
the stomach and make it churn more around its animal
Only once, in Buchenwald, did I see the gray of prison
routine give way to something brighter. It was when, on
two occasions, the prison authorities permitted regular
religious services to be held. I say regular, because in the
somberness of the prison there were always a few who,
with their priests and ministers, held clandestine masses
and services whenever possible. Even if they had lost hope
in human freedom, they never lost the hope and freedom
of interior faith.
But when, at Christmas and Easter, regular services
were permitted, there was a brief, day-long surge of light
even among the prisoners. Women who had grown used
to filth and slovenliness cleaned themselves and brushed
their hair into a semblance of order. Men to whom mud
and odors were part of the dress of every day brushed
their ragged clothes and used the water in their wash-
Note: The crematory and dungeon 2 were so used until 1945
only. The women's TB hospital was an official house of pros-
titution until 1945. The execution area was so used until 1945,
and the cemetery from 1945 to 1950.
basins for something more than a perfunctory dab at the
eyes. Rumors of freedom never did that for these people.
Increased rations didn't do it. News of Soviet reversals
internationally (which were rare) didn't do it. But the
chance to go before their God again in public did it.
The Soviet has always called this a weakness. It is per-
haps the only thing about which they have been wrong
in judging the Christian world.
Late in January, just as suddenly as they had started,
the releases from Buchenwald stopped. Instead, investi-
gating team?/ went through the ranks of the prisoners, ask-
ing questions by rote and "arresting" prisoners for whom
some special fates apparently were in store.
I was one of those arrested. My father and I were
separated, not knowing whose lot would prove to be the
better one. Not for four and a half years was I to learn what
had become of him.
Prisoners like myself were taken to Erfurt, some 60 miles
The nightmare was unreeling faster.
In Erfurt we were herded into the basement of a large
commandeered house. More questions, largely repetitious
and meaningless, were put to us. We slept on straw-filled
bags tossed on the basement floor. Outside, an organ
grinder played the same anguishing tune over and over:
"Komm zurtick" ("Come back").
From the basement, with a suddenness that could only
be terrifying for people who had lived in timeless suspen-
sion for so long, we were taken to the prison of Weimar.
In that prison, by contrast, there was no time. There
almost seemed to be no life. Prisoners stared blankly at
the newcomers. No one spoke. In Weimar, as in most
prisons, news was tapped from cell to cell. If a person
had a question that he wanted answered by a faraway
prisoner, he could count on its taking weeks to reach its
destination. I heard that there were Americans, British,
and Frenchmen here. Who were they? Why were they
here? Would they pass along the word of my presence if
they were freed?
As long as I was in Weimar I had no answer to these
questions. Four years later I was to know their names
(William Verdine and Homer Cox were two of the Ameri-
cans), and one even participated as one of my liberators.
Verdine tried to escape from Weimar, after knocking two
guards over the head with a pipe. He was caught by the
last outpost between him and freedom.
Weimar was, we learned, a prison where sentences were
passed. I thought back to the many I had noted as an
aide at Munchenerplatz. Now I knew I would go through
it firsthand. I tried to minimize it by recalling all the de-
tails from the other prison. It didn't help.
The scene, when the day came, was just as I knew it
would be, but still shocking in its all-pervading symbolism
— Red flags, red drapes, the secret-police officials at the
red-covered table. A girl at the table asked the inevitable,
routine questions of identity and then shoved a printed
form toward me. It had been filled in at two places. First
there was my name. Then there was a space with the
figure "15" written in.
"What is this?" I asked, pointing to the figure.
"You have been tried in Moscow and sentenced to fif-
teen years of slave labor." (The paper read: "physical
It was like being slapped. I could feel the muscles of
my stomach begin to give way in a surge of fear.
"Why, for what reason, on what charge?" I blurted out.
"If there are any questions," the girl replied curtly,
"ask them where you will be sent." I was shoved from the
Back in my cell, I discovered that my blanket and be-
longings already had been wrapped and thrown onto a
stack with the bundles of some forty other prisoners who
had been sentenced within the same hour.
I had no chance even to try to contact my father or to
ask where he was or if he had been sentenced. With the
others, I was herded into a big room. We were left there,
with only the barest rations and with no word whatsoever,
for two days. Then we were packed into police patrol
Some of the prisoners guessed, from the direction we
were following, that we were headed toward Berlin. How
right they were came home to us in the cruelest fashion
when, at one point, our wagon got lost and drove right to
the bbrder of the U.S. Zone. Through slits in the side of
the wagon we could see American soldiers at their posts
along the street that marked the border. The guard with
us in the van enforced silence with his submachine gun,
waving it angrily at us as we jammed up to the slits to see
the soldiers of the Army of Liberation.
Our stop was Lichtenberg prison. Whereas Weimar
prison had been dead with the silence of despair, Lichten-
berg was a bedlam of terrible and tortured noises. We
were held there one week. Never, during that time (from
August 10 to 17), was there a silent moment. We found no
rest by night or day.
There was regular torture at Lichtenberg, possibly of
new prisoners brought in from the Berlin area; there
wasn't much sense left in torturing the other, well-broken-
in prisoners. The screams from the torture sessions knifed
through the prison at all hours. There were the shouts and
loud gibberings of the mad. Madness was always a great
factor when there were plenty of new prisoners. Old
prisoners were those who had not gone mad, who had
survived and adjusted to their new, mindless life.
After the seven days of Lichtenberg, I was again hus-
tled from my cell and shoved into a stunned, fearful
group of prisoners who, with belongings bundled, were
waiting like zombies for the next push into an always un-
The groups of prisoners, this time, were separated into
bunches of twenty and herded into brick corrals in the
prison yard. We could see British planes landing at a
nearby airport. And then the prison trucks rolled up.
This time we did not go directly to another prison but
to a railhead. There, in a line of regular freight cars, were
the prison cars that we were to occupy. These rolling jails
were disguised as mail cars. Inside, they were partitioned
into wire cages that would hold about a dozen prisoners
apiece. Each car of cages held about seventy prisoners
altogether, with room left over for half a dozen guards.
Jammed together, inside the cages, with the stench of a
thousand previous prisoners like a greasy fog inside the
cars, we began to roll away from the setting sun, into
On August 19 we arrived at Brest-Litovsk and were
herded from our mail cars across a plank and into regu-
lar prison cars. These were easily recognizable. We had
heard about them, often, from drunken guards and from
those inevitable inmates of every prison who, in their own
way, manage to learn everything there is to know about
The cars were called Stalopinskis, after a former Min-
ister of State Security. The Stalopinski is designed and
built for no other purpose than to transport prisoners.
As we walked over the plank into the car, we observed
something else even more striking. The Stalopinski was
not on the usual European-gauge rails. Its tracks were the
characteristic broad gauge of the Soviet Union.
THE INTERIOR OF A
Stalopinski prison car is very efficiently laid out. It repre-
sents one of the few real Soviet contributions to design,
inasmuch as Russia's main industrial patterns are copied
from those of other nations. The Stalopinski is a Soviet
achievement, all Soviet.
Down the length of the car, along one side, runs a nar-
row corridor through which the prisoners may be herded
and through which, later, guards may walk. There are
wire cages on the side of the corridor, extending to the
far side wall, eight cages to a car. In each cage there are
three horizontal wooden shelves about six or seven feet
wide apiece, like large tables extending from the wall of
the car to the wire of the cage.
On each shelf five prisoners are laid out like sausages
on a tray. That makes fifteen prisoners per cage, 120 per
car. In the "mail" car, with prisoners standing, only sev-
enty to eighty prisoners could be packed. Getting some
fifty extra prisoners per car is a genuine, undisputed ac-
complishment of communism.
The prisoners were placed on the shelves with feet to-
ward the wall of the car, heads against the wire of the
cages. Some lay on their backs, some on their stomachs,
depending on how they squirmed when ordered onto the
shelf. My position was stomach down. I was jammed be-
tween other prisoners, feet hard against the train wall,
hands at side, chin against the rough board of the shelf,
and eyes staring straight ahead through the wire into the
There was no way to change positions, to arch one's
back, to do anything. Twice a day we were taken out to
go to the bathroom. At other times, during the day and
night, prisoners who could not hold themselves would
whimperingly foul their pants and often also the prison-
ers next to them. Even in the community of hardship it
was difficult for some prisoners not to hate the unfortu-
nates who did this.
We stayed on those shelves for six weeks as the
Stalopinskis rolled on, northeastward.
Once in a while, from my spot on the shelf, I could see
across the corridor and out of a window of the train for
a second when the guards drew the curtain back. After
Germany we had rolled through Poland. The land had
seemed poor, but it had been tilled and sometimes lovely.
After Brest-Litovsk, in the Stalopinski, we were in Russia
itself and the landscape changed.
It was like a drop back into another age. Instead of the
farm homes of Poland, only shacks and sod huts were
visible from the train. Log cabins with burlap window
coverings, dust, dirt, rutted roads, farm animals grazing
in the mud beside the huts — these were the marks of the
Our first stop in the Soviet Union was at Orsha, mid-
way between Brest-Litovsk and Moscow. The gates of
the cage were opened, the guards herded us out, blinking
and wondering, into the sun. No one spoke. No one spec-
ulated — we were long past that. We just waited, not mov-
ing until prodded and the way pointed out. Only our
eyes moved restlessly and furtively as we hunted, not
for mere sights, but for some clue as to what would hap-
pen next, some secret clue that might prepare us for a
sudden blow or a new prison, or even a sudden death.
What we saw from the train stop (it wasn't even a sta-
tion) was a wooden town of some 25,000 inhabitants.
There were no sidewalks. The streets were not cobbled
but were just rutted paths between board and log build-
ings. On several corners of these paths there were manual
water pumps. A few electric-line poles near the station
were the only reminder that this was a place of our cen-
tury and not from some past time.
The guards marched us, shuffling, into the streets of
the town. Livestock, mostly hogs and goats, crossed in
front of us as we went into the town area proper. Carts
drawn by small Panya horses rattled along the streets,
their drivers hardly bothering to glance at us. Few people
in the town, as a matter of fact, seemed to consider us
unique enough to favor with more than casual glances.
Our clothes, we noticed, were certainly not enough to set
townspeople and prisoners apart. We all were ragged to-
At open store fronts (there were no windows), heavy,
often barefoot women in padded blouses haggled over
bolts of coarse cloth or for pieces of farm hardware. Men
in visored skull caps, cotton shirts, and trousers that left
a universal gap of inches between pant-bottom and high-
shoe top walked about their own business.
There was, we noticed after we had crossed the entire
town, one brick building after all. It was the one toward
which we were heading. Just as the Stalopinski is a sign
of genuine Soviet progress, so was the lone brick structure
of Orsha. It was the prison.
Once through the gates and into the courtyard of the
prison, we were greeted by a bedlam of shouts from a
balcony where a group of woman prisoners, their skirts
lifted, welcomed us with the sort of prison obscenities to
which we had become accustomed. This time, though, I
was shocked to notice that some of the women, holding
their skirts up with one hand, held a child with the other.
Women were permitted their children — and their excesses
— in Soviet prisons as another sign of the enlightenment
of communism's penal "kultur."
Our quarters in the prison consisted of a single, hall-
like room into which all the Stalopinski passengers were
driven. The whitewashed walls were black with a floor-to-
ceiling patchwork of names, scratched, penciled, and in a
few cases written in blood.
I can remember only one of the names on that wall.
I saw it quite accidentally. The name was partially ob-
scured but it was either Roberts, Robertson, or Robinson.
By it was a date of just a few days earlier (mid- August
1950), and after it was the identification, "Maj., U.S.A."
Here was another far-from-comforting reminder that the
power of the Soviet was great enough to snatch other
Americans from freedom and into the night of the prison
Before the doors were slammed on us, a guard shouted
that anyone else caught writing on the walls would be
punished. To the packed mob of prisoners, pressed against
the walls and filling the hall, the unenforceable nature of
the order provided a moment of high humor.
That night the humor was removed when a prisoner,
clumsily climbing onto the cooking vat left in a corner
as a toilet, toppled the entire vat, spreading its noisome
load over the floor on which we had to sleep.
In the morning it was a relief to hear that all prisoners
were to get a bath and, astounding news, be shaved! As
the long line began to move into the bath and shaving
room, however, our joy was qualified. The bathing part
consisted of a row of pans. The prisoners shucked their
clothes and squatted or stooped over the pans, splashing
the water where they thought they needed it most. At
irregular intervals the filthy water was changed.
The shaving was as unnerving. A girl barber had been
assigned the chore. The prisoners were told not to dress
as they moved to her part of the bath and barbering room.
Head hair, she trimmed in seconds, down to the scalp.
Then she removed body hair, as expressionlessly as when
she was clipping our heads.
Later, from wise prisoners, I learned that this was nei-
ther an unstudied vulgarity nor an accident. The Soviet
prison authorities had long known that for many men
the ordeal of being exposed to a woman under such de-
grading circumstances was crushing to morale — should
there be any random sparks of it left.
When the bathing and barbering were finished, the pris-
oners were lined up in marching order again and headed
back to the cells.
The Stalopinski in which we had come to Orsha had
gone on, and we had to wait for a new one. Thus a day's
rest was granted.
At that time, in the Soviet Union, every regular train
carried one or two Stalopinskis as a matter of course, and
the next day we were marched to the tracks. As we
waited there, no one even bothered to stare at us, much
less at the Stalopinskis when they rolled up in the line of
cars. We were thrown onto our shelves in the Stalopinski
even as the regular travelers climbed into their cars and
sat on the benches.
One thing I noticed now which I had not noticed when
we first arrived at the station — perhaps because we had
not come with a passenger train such as this — was beg-
gars, literally scores of them, swarming around the trai
crying for food or rubles.
Our next stop was Moscow, heart city of the Soviet it-
self. Moscow, like the other cities of the country, was no
stranger to trainloads of prisoners.
OUR SHIPMENT OF
filthy, emaciated prisoners was greeted at Moscow by a brass
The band was not for us, but it was right beside the
point at the platform where we were unloaded. The band
was playing for a group of children returning from a vaca-
tion in Switzerland. They seemed very happy as they met
the prosperous bureaucrats and military officers who were
their parents. But, just as we had been ignored by the
ragged people of Orsha, we were ignored by the well-
padded folk at the Moscow station.
Even while the band and celebration continued next to
us on the platform, we were loaded into prison vans. This
time we could not see where we were going. There was no
speculation. The idea of being in the capital of the land
that had imprisoned us was a stilling thing.
When we alighted from the trucks we were on the out-
skirts of the city, at the "Red Press" prison, the largest of
the transit stops in the busy Soviet jail world. Compared
to the Stalopinskis, the quarters were commodious. We
were packed into large cells in groups of between forty
and fifty apiece. Metal shelves served as beds, but the lux-
Airy of being able to turn over on them was a thankful con-
trast to the prison train. There were two buckets in the
cell, exactly similar. One was for a toilet. The other held
a weak tea and later the soup and porridge that was our
food ration for four days in the prison.
For fifteen minutes each day we were marched onto the
roof of the prison and permitted a 15-minute air-and-
exercise period inside a wire enclosure. In other such
enclosures other groups of prisoners milled, getting their
daily tonic. In the section next to us some 300-400 chil-
dren, seeming to range in age from about eight years to
the early teens, took their exercise.
Only in years were they young. Their pinched, thin
faces were hard and set. Their eyes were as lusterless as
any older prisoner's. Their oaths, if anything, were fouler
and more frequent than those of the older prisoners and,
in one important respect, they were considerably tougher
than their elders in the prison. They cursed, defied, and
even spat at the guards with a spirit we had lost long ago.
They took their gun-butt beatings better, too, shrieking
and yelling rather than whimpering in a lumpy huddle.
Most of them, I learned, were in the prison for "hooli-
ganism," a term that covered everything from theft to
assault. (In Dresden prison, I recalled, there had been a
12-year-old boy sentenced for having murdered a Soviet
major. That, possibly, had been an act of resistance asso-
ciated with Red brutality during the occupation. The
youngsters on the roof, I thought, were far too practical
for such an action. Their crimes, I was sure, were all
harshly realistic crimes of profit.)
Some of the young prisoners, or volke as they were
called, actually had been born in prison camps, where
their parents had been confined. Subsequently they had
been raised in government homes from which, presum-
ably, they bolted, preferring a life of crime in the streets.
Once in the Soviet prison system, however, the volke were
treated just as were the older prisoners. They were, for
instance, used as slave labor. The entire Kharkov factory
for the Fed camera, a Russian copy of the Leica, I
learned, was manned by volke.
Thinking now about the volke invariably makes me
shudder. But, then, they were just another detail of the
nightmare, no more shocking than any other. We were
introduced to another level of criminal at the Red Press
prison, and it was a much more meaningful introduction
than to the volke. These were older criminals. They were
called blatnois, to distinguish them from the political pris-
oners such as, until now, had been the only prisoners I
The blatnois, like the volke, were in no particular op-
position to the system that had imprisoned them. They
would have been in jail, sooner or later, under any system.
The fact that they had merely robbed, raped, beaten, or
even murdered was an extremely important difference.
Unlike us, they were not "untouchable." They were not
"degenerate" agents of the Fascists or capitalists. They
were not saboteurs, spies, wreckers, counterrevolutionaries
or any of the terrible things that we were. They were not,
in short, dangerous in any way to the Soviet as such.
They were, instead, often helpful.
There was an obvious respect for the blatnois on the
part of many of the MVD guards, for instance. The blat-
nois could be trusted. They could even be called on to
assist the guards. The blatnois wouldn't try to escape be-
cause, in reality, they had all the comforts and securities
in prison that they had tried to steal outside.
One secret of their success was simply that in many
instances they were given carte blanche to run the pris-
ons from the inside. So far as "politicals" were concerned,
the blatnois were boss. The guards would turn away while
the blatnois beat prisoners. Later I was to see them turn
away even from murder. The blatnois stole from the pris-
oners with impunity. They could force entire shifts of
prisoners to work for them. They were, ironically, pro-
tected in their crimes by the police!
Because of the special place occupied by the blatnois
or common criminals in the Soviet prison system, a few
are interposed into most groups of prisoners. The ones
sent to join our group in the Red Press prison left no
doubts as to their role. In our enclosure inside the jail
they flung prisoners away from them to clear a good
space for sleeping. When the food was served, they ate
first, scooping any scraps of vegetable or solid from the
soup or porridge. Only when the blatnois were fully fed
did anyone else approach the food tub.
The morning after the blatnois came, the first thefts
were noticed. Blankets, shirts, any riches that had been
brought from Germany, would disappear as soon as no-
ticed by the blatnois. When a prisoner tried to reclaim a
stolen article he faced a brutal beating. Several were beaten
before we learned that the blatnois were not to be ques-
tioned or disobeyed.
From Red Press we were trucked back to the railway
and to the Stalopinski. The blatnois, although they had to
lie on shelves like the rest of us, were not packed five to
a shelf. Even in the Stalopinski they had special privi-
We arrived at Vologda, three hundred miles to the north,
reputedly the oldest prison in the Soviet, a tower-studded,
looming fortress of a place.
We were taken from the train to the prison in trucks.
One overturned. The injured from the wreck were shoved
into other trucks. A few crumpled bodies were simply left.
At Vologda we were taken to the basement of the
building and into a single large cell. These old prison
walls had served in the time of Catherine the Great, a
harsh ruler in her own day.
We had hardly settled down when the rats started
creeping in from all corners. We dared not kill one, for
fear the others, smelling blood, might take revenge. All
we could do was to share our bread rations with them to
keep them from creeping up to us.
We had not been there long when a door swung open
and an officer entered and demanded loudly, "Who has
had clothing stolen by the blatnois on the way here?"
There was dead silence. Could this be a trap? Were
they looking for squealers? I looked around at the blat-
nois who had been with me and who I knew must have
stolen from me. They sat calmly, their eyes fixed on me
to see how I would react.
Five or six Germans reported they had been robbed.
Before leaving the cell with them, the officer turned to me
and said, "How about you, Noble? They took a lot from
you too. You'd better come and see what belongs to you."
The bandits had, indeed, taken a good deal from me,
but was it worth claiming? I might, in the long run, have
to pay a high price for its return.
Before I knew it, I was up and going through the door.
We were taken to the office of the commander, where we
saw a big pile of clothing. As I entered, I caught a glimpse
of the commander leaving through the back door with
two of my shirts under his arm.
"Johnny," I said to myself, "you'd better watch your
step." If only I could speak and understand their harsh
language I could work my way through this jungle of sly
I picked up a sweater, underclothing, a coat, and some
small articles the blatnois had stolen from me. They were
practically all I had had; I had come into possession of
them only a short while before I left Buchenwald. They
had belonged to men who now were resting in the cold
soil outside the camp. Even so, I had more right to them
than these crooks had.
I turned, ready to go, when the whole gang of blatnois
was led in. We were asked to point out who had stolen
from us. When it was my turn to tell, all the blatnois had
already been accused by others. I merely said that most
of them had been around me in the train, and I could not
be sure that it was one or the other.
When we all were back in the cell, I could sense that
the robbers were bent on revenge. This was not to come
We were taken back to the railroad tracks and loaded
not into Stalopinskis but into regular boxcars. They
seemed like luxury coaches by contrast.
But once the doors were slammed shut, the blatnois
took over. The dozen blatnois among the seventy prison-
ers in the car began a thorough search. Everything they
had stolen before went back into their possession. No one
Then the punishment started. At random, the blatnois
selected prisoners who had reclaimed stolen goods. I was
not, fortunately, among them, since, in their opinion, I
had handled myself decently. They merely demanded a
sweater from me to prove their authority.
One man who had scrambled onto one of the four
sleeping shelves at the end of the boxcar was hauled out
by the legs, his head crashing onto the floor, where he was
Another man was held up against the wall and beaten
unconscious, until his dead weight dragged him to the
floor. Then another prisoner was grabbed, stood up in
the same place, and beaten until he fell. No one moved.
Everyone watched, silent, unprotesting.
At our next toilet stop, four of the beaten prisoners were
taken from the train and left, presumably to die from ex-
posure and loss of blood.
The fact that the guards didn't blink an eye at the
brutality of the blatnois was warning enough that the re-
turn of the stolen goods had been some odd exception, a
repetition of which might never occur.
One of the prisoners with us in the boxcar was a
Russian-Chinese who was familiar with the course the
train was taking. He had been in the Soviet north before —
as a free man, not a prisoner.
The man had been in business in Harbin when the Soviet
consul there had persuaded him that an outstanding ca-
reer would be available to him as a plant manager in the
glorious Soviet Union. High wages, payment of all ex-
penses, prestige such as few in China could envision were
some of the lures proffered. When the Russian-Chinese
asked if he could take a piano along for his musically
inclined daughter, the consul laughed. Why, everyone
knew, he said, that far better pianos, for far less money,
could be obtained in the Soviet Union.
The Russian-Chinese was assigned as an official of a
chemical plant at the town of Molotov in the Urals. There
were, however, a few flaws in the dream world that had
been promised. For one thing, his pay was just one third
of the promised reward. Instead of luxury and a "peo-
ple's" piano, he was given a one-room apartment with a
kitchen shared by five other families. His daughter, in this
new communal environment, was soon sleeping with a
notable succession of young Communists. Although the
daughter was soon quite contented with the good life in
the Soviet, and in the dormitories of the Soviet's young
heroes, the father was unhappy. When his time came, the-
oretically, to choose between staying in the Soviet or re-
turning to Harbin, he chose Harbin. Within a few days he
was on his way into the prison circuit.
We also had in our group a woman prisoner. We did
not see her, however, after we switched to the boxcar. She
traveled with the guards. Sometimes, above the clatter of
the train, or during toilet stops, we could hear her as the
guards, in shifts, "entertained" her.
During the trip, whenever we stopped on a siding to
let another train pass on the single-line track, several
guards walked outside the car banging on each board
with mallets to assure that none was loose. The hammer-
ing was maddening. Once, when we were on a siding for
an entire day, the guards kept up the nerve-shattering
tattoo almost constantly. It seemed to be fun for them.
On these occasions, when the banging stopped it
seemed a great relief. For a time the prisoners would talk,
or shuffle their feet, or strain their eyes at cracks in the
car wall to see the bleak landscape. After a few minutes, if
the train still hadn't started — and stops of several hours
were most common — the silence would start. The wind
would sigh through the car. No prisoner would have any-
thing else to say. The blatnois would be hunched by them-
selves. It was then, I suppose, that most of us realized how
utterly lost we were. We had only rumor to tell us our des-
tination. We had only our fears to tell us our future in any
There, in the silence of those stops, we realized the
most desolate thing that a human can know — that no one
cared about us and that no one could do anything about
our plight. It was as though the Soviet had made time
stand still and paralyzed history itself.
In the silence, once, a man suddenly shrieked and
buried his head in his arms, overcome with despair.
The shriek died away. Only the cold Russian wind was
During these weeks of travel, the utter monotony was
broken every now and then when one of us would see,
through a crack, a new prison compound. Some were
crowded with men, others with women; some showed no
sign of life at all.
As we rolled onward, day after day, the hours of light
became fewer and the dense forests faded away. Pine
trees had become shrubs; birch trees were thin and
spotted. Bushes and grass were sparser.
We arrived at a forest — a forest of poles and barbed
wire. It covered part of a plateau which was open only
toward the north and northwest, being otherwise sur-
rounded in the distance by the snow-covered peaks and
slopes of the Ural mountains. We had penetrated far into
the north, beyond the Arctic circle. We were in Vorkuta.
WHEN THE ROLL
call at the Vorkuta railroad siding was finished, the Russian
NCO barked something like "Shagom marsh!" It sounded
like "get going" in any language. We crossed the tracks
and walked two abreast toward a small group of buildings,
which I later learned was the peresilka, the transit camp
for new arrivals. The MVD guards with submachine guns
and two police dogs took up the rear. Suddenly, a guard
shouted an order.
"What did he say?" I asked the man beside me.
"Not to turn our heads or look back or try to break
line. If we do we will be shot."
Inside the peresilka I was given a two-minute examina-
tion by a female doctor and pronounced fit for heavy-duty
work. I was issued the slave outfit common to all Russia,
a blue cotton-padded jacket (bushlat), cotton-padded
pants, and a cotton hat (shapka) that had flaps for the
ears. Across the hat and on the upper right leg of my
pants, my slave number, l-E-241, was sewn on in black
cloth. There was little chance to forget who or where I
was. From the coded numbers the MVD officials could
tell at a glance that I was a political prisoner.
Two weeks later I was put on a train headed still far-
ther north, along with a group that was mainly com-
posed of Russians and Ukrainians. The Russians had been
arrested for "treason" or "agitation" or were former Red
army men who had been captured by the Germans in
World War II, a twenty-year offense. Most Ukrainians
were from the nationalist Bandera army that fought the
Reds for independence.
We made a short stop at the town of Vorkuta itself,
comparatively "modern," with street lamps, cobblestoned
roads, planked wooden sidewalks, and bronze statue of
Josef Stalin extending greetings to the Komsomol mem-
bership, the Young Communists who were supposed to
have built the polar town.
In the darkening streets we could see a few hundred
slaves like ourselves, their numbers still visible on the
cotton clothes in the evening light, with picks and axes
repairing streets and breaking ground for a new apart-
ment building for MVD officials.
"Look at the Komsomol'tzy!" my Russian companions
From the town we went north about twenty miles into
the far northern region of the Vorkuta complex. Our des-
tination was Camp 3, where 4500 men worked three of
the forty coal pits of Vorkuta. With 120 other men I was
assigned to a low, ugly barracks, No. 46, about a mile
and a half from Mine 16, where I was to work as a slave
for the next three years.
Our barracks were low, rectangular affairs propped
just above the tundra. Posts had been jammed into the
frozen ground, and boards nailed along them inside and
out to create walls. The space between the walls was
filled with ashes for insulation, then the walls were cov-
ered with mud and straw to fill the holes. When completed,
the whole thing was whitewashed.
It was October and the six-week summer was over.
There are only two seasons there, summer and winter. A
sheet of snow already covered the ground. Prisoners were
working outside the barracks, packing the snow into large
blocks and propping them up against the side of the bar-
racks, igloo fashion, as protection against the real cold
ahead. Within a short time the temperature would drop
to 45 to 65 below zero.
I looked at the "bunk" I had been assigned to. It was
a segment of a two-foot width of long, hard, wooden
shelf, one of two shelves, upper and lower, that ran the
full length of both sides of the barracks. I got an upper
shelf and shimmied up a pole in front to get there. There
was no sheet, mattress, pillow, or blanket — just a hard
wooden slab. I untied my roll of extra clothes. Unfolding
the trench coat I was wearing the day of my arrest in
1945, I put it underneath me like a mattress.
When the next prisoner lay down, a big Russian peas-
ant who smelled of machorka, their crude tobacco made
from the stem of the plant, our shoulders were touching.
(Later, when new men came in, I had only enough room
to sleep on my side flat against the next man.) But I was
lucky. Some of the men were sleeping on the floor just
as packed as I was.
The only ones who seemed to enjoy the arrangement
were the chorni djhopie, the dark-complexioned Geor-
gians known as the "black asses," many of whom were
homosexuals. To them, our miserably close quarters were
an Arctic heaven.
The barracks was dark, with only a small window or
two on either side and two naked electric bulbs hanging
from the roof. Warmth was provided partly by a mud
stove at either end, stoked by a slave whose health had
been ruined by the work and the cold. Further heat was
generated by the 100 to 125 prisoners who jammed the
building. At the far end from me was the drying room, a
stinking hole where prisoners back from the mine hung
up their unwashed clothes to dry.
It was a human jungle, smelly, overcrowded. Everyone,
including the guards, spat large globs openly on the floor.
The Russians cursed in one continuous flow. Slaves,
guards, Red officials — especially the hard woman pris-
oners — relied more on cursing than on a regular vocab-
There was no toilet in the barracks. A crude outhouse
with a hole in the snow was our bathroom. It was about
150 yards from the barracks. The first days I ran like a
deer through the deep snow in 20-below-zero weather,
then raced back, holding my unbuttoned pants to make
it without freezing.
One day I noticed that not everyone went to the out-
house as frequently as I did. I investigated a small crowd
that had gathered near the door, which was open just a
few inches. A wooden trough made of two planks was
stuck through it to the ground below. One prisoner was
urinating down the trough and the others were laughing.
The smart ones, old hands at Soviet slavery, had devised
impromptu plumbing to beat the cold at least part of the
time. Some of the crowd were yelling "Da," others "Nyet."
They were betting crude cigarettes of machorka wrapped
in old copies of Pravda whether the urine would freeze
before it hit the ground. From November on, it almost
A few days after I arrived I became familiar with the
security setup. From what I saw, we were precious cargo
indeed. Inside the camp, the MVD guards were unarmed
(for fear of being overpowered and having their guns
stolen), but Camp 3 was surrounded by a twelve-foot-high
barbed-wire fence punctuated with tall towers manned by
guards and machine gunners. The towers were connected
by telephone and an electric alarm system. A few yards
inside the outer fence was a shorter one, three feet high.
The snowy area between was designated a prohibited
zone, zapretneye zona, and lit up all through the night
and dark days with powerful arc lights. The guards had
orders to shoot on sight anyone seen there. The police
dogs, conscientious MVD allies, could scout the entire
camp by means of a guide wire strung close to the outer
I was sure Vorkuta was escape proof. During my first
week a Pole who had lived in Chicago for some years
heard about the "Amerikanitz" and dropped in to say
hello. He could handle a simple English conversation. I
asked him about the chance for escape.
"Where could you go even if you got out of here?" he
said. "It might be possible to get past the fences under
cover of a snowstorm, but the tundra, the snow, and the
cold defeat everyone. Since I've been here, no one I know
of has made it. Actually, you are worth more to the
Communists than you imagine. The Komi nomads get
10,000 rubles for every slave brought back. It's more
money than they have ever seen. They do a good business.
The Red army also has outposts dug into the tundra, and
their planes fly overhead looking for escapees. The only
hope is to have the courage of the Colonel."
The Colonel, a former Red army officer, is a Vorkuta
legend. According to the story I heard, the Colonel was
serving a twenty-five-year sentence for having surrendered
his troops to the Nazis during World War II. In 1947,
when conditions were said to have been so bad in Vor-
kuta that survival was almost impossible, the Colonel or-
ganized a secret army among the slaves. He succeeded in
overpowering and disarming the MVD company guard-
ing his camp. With his slave army now fully armed, he
marched to the next camp and after a heavy pitched battle
defeated the MVD, again commandeering their rifles and
machine guns. The Colonel's army swelled with each
camp he liberated, and he carefully made plans to
march to the Finnish border, eighteen hundred miles
away. It was still summer (revolt is possible only in July
and August) and the rabble army made two hundred
miles over the tundra before it was intercepted by a
motorized MVD unit. Every rebel was either killed in
battle or later executed in Vorkuta.
Camp 3, with its 4500 men, was run by the MVD,
under the command of Major Tchevchenko (a small,
skeletonlike man who hated the cold climate) and his
political officer, Captain Buikoff ("bull" in Russian), a
tall, stolid, thick-necked officer who threw prisoners into
the bor, the camp prison-within-a-prison, merely on the
word of the stukachey, the MVD informers. (The word
means "knocker" in Russia, the sign of a coward in a
country where no one knocks before he enters a room.)
Under Tchevchenko and Buikoff were the prisoner-officials,
the nariaycheks, in charge of an entire work shift; the
desetnicks, in charge of one type of work (e.g., coal min-
ing), and the brigadiers, overlords of anywhere from five
to forty men. Ninety-five percent of the camp were violently
anti-Communist, but some of the prisoner-officials were still
loyal to the Kremlin despite their slavery — and a few served
Unofficially, however, Vorkuta had a different master.
Our camp was ruled with a steel fist by about 250 blatnois,
the Russian criminals. They kept the political prisoners
in abject fear. There were about eight of them in my bar-
racks, living on a shelf at the far end that would nor-
mally hold more than twenty prisoners. They spent their
time sleeping, stealing whatever they admired, sharpen-
ing the knives they made, playing homemade balalaikas,
dancing the plashska, a fast dance something like the
The bodies of many of the blatnois were covered with
grotesque tattoos. I saw one that had the Pope and the
Devil in an uncomplimentary pose. Another blatnoi had
a giant foot-wide tattoo of human testicles etched in red
across his chest.
No brigadier, including my boss, Politayev, a former
Red army commissar and politruk (political officer) serv-
ing a twenty-year sentence because he was captured by
the Nazis, would dare ask a blatnoi to work. If one of
them should as much as lift a shovel, he would be mur-
dered instantly by his comrades.
The blatnois were unemotional professional criminals,
mostly in their twenties, serving comparatively short sen-
tences for theft and murder. They had begun life as
besprisorni, the vagrant children that travel in small bands
throughout the Soviet, robbing as they go. They had been
raised under communism, but they knew nothing about
politics and cared less. Their starshi, or chief, a cold-eyed,
burly twenty-three-year-old Moscovite, controlled his men
with iron discipline. That discipline was the blatnois'
strength over the bickering politicals.
J The day I arrived, an Estonian slave had two teeth
knocked out and his cheek cut open. He had refused to
give his new bushlat to a blatnoi in exchange for an old
one. One blatnoi did the actual fighting while two help-
ers stood by. The Estonian made a move toward the blat-
noi, but as he did, one of the thief s helpers tripped him.
He fell on his face to a chorus of laughs. When he got
up to fight again, a blatnoi standing behind him pushed
him off balance. As he staggered, he was pummeled fero-
ciously in the face until it was a pudgy mass of crimson.
The Estonian's frightened slave friends drifted away from
the brutal beating without lifting a finger.
The beating was routine. A few days later, though,
I saw that the blatnois stopped at nothing to enforce their
will. I had dropped into a nearby barracks to visit my
English-speaking Polish friend. While we were talking, a
Ukrainian walked from man to man, fear etched in his
eyes, whispering an announcement of some kind.
"What did he say?" I asked.
"He says the blatnois are playing cards," he answered
with the same trepidation.
"What's so important about their playing cards?"
He looked at me patiently as if I were a child. "Come,
you shall see."
We walked toward the far end of the barracks. Five
blatnois were seated on stools below the naked electric
bulb. Between them was a table improvised from a large
board. I stood at a safe distance but close enough to see
what was going on. They were playing cards intently,
their eyes focused on the dealer's hand.
"It looks like rummy," I said to my Polish friend. 'Is
that the game?"
"It's something like that, but they play with a forty-
card deck, from ace to six. Look how they concentrate
without a word or a smile."
"What are the stakes?" I asked. "They must be high."
"Very high," he answered solemnly. "Murder. The low
scorer has to kill the man marked for death by the blat-
nois. It happens every week."
A cautious few like ourselves had gathered near the
playing table, but when the blatnois kicked over the board
in a sign that the game was over, the small crowd quickly
dispersed. I went back to my friend's shelf and watched
the drama from there.
A young blond-haired blatnoi about eighteen, the loser,
pulled a knife out of his belt and calmly approached
the lower shelf of bunks about halfway between me and
the place where they had been playing cards. He had a
padded jacket in one hand and the knife in the other.
Sleeping on the shelf was a well-fed prisoner, one of the
cooks in the mess hall.
The blatnoi walked silently, without causing a creak
in the old flooring, then leaped at the cook. In one swift
professional movement he threw the bushlat over the
cook's head, held him down with a viselike grip around
the neck, then jabbed the long blade to the hilt some
twelve times into the victim's chest and stomach.
The cook screeched through the bushlat. Dripping
blood from his chest, he pushed the blatnoi off him. He
got off the shelf and started to run down the barracks
aisle toward the door. He got about fifteen feet then col-
lapsed and died in a pool of his own blood.
I had never seen such a killing. Without a word, I
walked back to my barracks. Later, I heard the aftermath
of the murder. The victim had been decapitated with an
ax by two of the blatnois after the killing. Then, follow-
ing their tradition of "honor," the young killer had car-
ried the cook's head in his hand — its bulging eyes still
frozen in an expression of horror — right up to the main
gate. He proudly confessed the killing and presented the
head to the guard as proof.
The cook had paid the penalty for defying the blat-
nois. As a cook he was an important part of one blatnoi
scheme. When a new prisoner arrived, the blatnois often
made a deal — they would "buy" the woolen suit he was
arrested in and pay for it with a month's extra ration, a
second plate of soup at both meals. The blatnoi chief
would take the prisoner down to the cook, introduce him
and explain. "This man is to get extra soup every day
for thirty days." The now-headless cook had refused to
go along with the proposition.
The blatnoi killer was given the usual two-month sen-
tence in the camp prison, not a day of it in the cold cell,
a special MVD torture reserved for political prisoners. In
return for keeping the politicals cowed, the tattooed crim-
inals had the run of Vorkuta. One of their murder victims
was found at least once a week, killed in his sleep in the
barracks or face down in the snow, his head opened with
a food chopper stolen from the kitchen. Only those blat-
nois who proved too much for even the MVD were
shipped farther north to the Arctic Ocean island of No-
vaya Zemlya (New Land), from which there is no return.
In 1953, the Soviet government changed the penalty
for murder to death, but still the blatnois never got more
than two months in the bor.
Fortunately, I had one advantage on my side. As the
only American in camp, I soon became a museum piece —
treated by my fellow prisoners with special respect and
awe. Despite all the anti-American propaganda, the
U.S.A. is still the land of magic wonders, at least to the
Russians in Vorkuta. One day, an old slave came into my
barracks while I was lying down. "Look, look, the Ameri-
kanitz," he said. He was pointing me out to friends who
had never seen one.
I decided to take whatever advantage there was in being
an American. I would play the lone wolf and keep to
MY LIFE IN VOR-
kuta was the closest thing possible to a living death. It was
a grueling combination of slow but continuous starvation,
exhausting work, killing cold, and abject monotony that
destroyed many a healthier man than I.
There was no wasted time in Vorkuta. I went to work
producing coal for the Reds the day I got there. The brig-
adier in charge of surface transportation (hauling coal
and slate) at Mine 16 was Politayev, the former Red army
political officer who looked me over and picked me for
his work brigade. My job was to push a two-ton car full
of slate by hand. Some of the others chosen complained
that they couldn't handle such heavy work.
Mines 12, 14, 16
DDDD DD#"„ i
Note: The "prison" had 8 cells and was used for severe short
terms, in chains, of 5 to 10 days for camp violations. The bor
was used for confining prisoners serving 10 to 60 days at hard
labor for camp violations.
"Sukinsin!" ("Son of a bitch!") one disgruntled pris-
oner yelled at Politayev. Politayev turned and looked dis-
dainfully at the complaining prisoner. Then he pointed
out a slave half-propped up on his bunk. I caught some
of the conversation and learned later that he was pointing
out a mine slave, one of the unfortunates who worked all
day in the 2 Vi -foot-high coal tunnels, crawling on their
stomachs and knees like rodents, chipping out the coal.
He had a blank, animal-like expression on his face, his
hair had turned mostly white, and his eyes were sunk
deep in his cadaverous face. All his bones showed under
a thin skin covering.
I turned away, sick.
For the next fourteen months, though, my lot wasn't
much better than his. In fact, I never expected to live
through the winter of 1950-1951.
My day began about 4:45 a.m. when a guard came
through yelling "Vstan!" ("Get up!"). The first few
weeks I washed with the half of a sheet I had taken
from Buchenwald. But one morning when the water
buckets froze (a common failure) I noticed that some of
the prisoners were washing in the snow stripped to the
waist. I decided to give it a try. The entire operation had
to be done quickly, I learned by experimenting. One min-
ute was fine, but five minutes could produce a bad frost-
bite. It stung and my face and body turned a beet red,
but I was clean.
"Breakfast" was at 5:30. (The first step out of the
barracks each morning suffocated me for a moment, the
air was so cold and thin.) There were two meals a day, in
the morning and evening. Each morning, I received a
pound and three quarters of sticky black bread, which
was our basic ration for the day. It was baked less than
an hour and soaked with sixty percent of water. It was
about one-third the size of an American one-pound rye-
bread loaf. It was too wet to eat as it was, so I toasted it
over the barracks stove, as the others did.
Breakfast consisted of a scoop of kasha (grayish grits)
and a small bowl of watery soup with a few cabbage
leaves at the bottom. There was nothing to drink except
water. Supper, about twelve hours later, was the same
kasha and thin soup, plus a thimbleful of sunflower oil
to pour over the kasha, a lV4-inch square of fish, and a
roll the size of a small egg. Every ten days, instead of the
fish, I got two ounces of tough reindeer meat. Once, on
May Day, we had pork.
My whole day's food totaled about 1400 calories (so
a Russian doctor told me), about half what an office
worker usually requires to live. I was continually starved,
my stomach in a knot crying for more. It's a feeling you
never get used to.
The evening meal was just enough to engender a real
appetite. All I could do to relieve the hunger pains back
in the barracks was to brew some homemade "coffee,"
an art I learned by watching the others. You take an
inch-square piece of black Russian bread, stick it on a
wire, and toast it over a flame until it is pitch black —
but you don't allow it to become white-hot ashes. When
it's the right color, you quickly dunk the burnt bread into
a cup of hot water until it too turns black. This dirty
water is Vorkuta coffee. Strangely enough, on cold nights
later on, when I had forgotten the aroma of real coffee, it
I had heard about the Vorkuta winter, but I never
quite believed it until I saw and felt it.
"It gets bad here in winter," my Polish friend had told
me. "The cold gets in your bones so bad you don't want
to live any more. It gets thirty, fifty, even seventy below
I worked on the surface that first year in the worst
Vorkuta winter in a decade. After morning mess, I lined
up in excruciating thirty-five-below-zero cold, hopping
around from one foot to the other while the plodding
MVD guards called the roll. My job was a mile and a
half away from the camp. Fifty of us, covered by ten
guards and two police dogs, made the trip every morning
through a forty-foot-wide corridor connecting Mines 12,
14, and 16 with Camp 3. The corridor had the same
double set of barbed wire on either side, and the same
brilliantly lit prohibited zone. About twenty guard towers
were alternately spaced on either side of the corridor. Each
tower was manned by one guard, with a submachine gun,
who was relieved every three hours.
Winter came quickly. By November and December, the
mile-and-a-half trip to and from work took us over an
hour each way, as we trudged through snow up to my hips.
(The corridor had a wooden walk, visible only in July
and August.) Every week the thermometer dipped an-
other five degrees. Within a short time, traveling to work
under armed guard became a polar expedition — little Arc-
tic safaris of guards, dogs, and slaves braving below-zero
temperatures and blinding snowstorms that blew up out
of nowhere. Only the MVD police dogs could forecast
them. At the approach of a storm they whined pitifully.
I hit an ugly storm not long after I arrived. It snowed
all night, and by morning, the twelve-foot barbed-wire
fence on the corridor was only a foot above the snow in
some spots. I had never seen anything like it in my life.
We ran to the mine through the snow (the pace was kill-
ing but it was the only way to create warmth). The snow
blew up in front of my face in great swirls. At times the
visibility was as low as six inches. The wind howled mer-
cilessly. I was one of the few men wearing the face mask
issued by the camp; gradually my breath, captured in-
side it, began to freeze painfully against my face. I ripped
it off and threw it into the snow. I pulled my bushlat over
my head, and staggered with my arm covering my face.
"Don't break out of line or you will be shot,'' one of the
MVD guards yelled.
I could have stepped right over the buried barbed-wire
fence at a dozen spots along the corridor, but there was
nowhere to escape to except deeper into the snowstorm.
Suddenly the slave next to me tapped me on the shoul-
der and pointed to my chin. It was a warning that my chin
had turned white, the first frightening sign of frostbite. I
pulled my hand out from under my jacket and started to
rub the circulation back, the only hope of stopping frost-
bite. It took ten minutes to get my chin red again. I
stopped just in time, for the back of my exposed hand
had just begun to show small white spots.
Others weren't as lucky. Hundreds of Vorkuta slaves
walked around with toes and fingers missing, amputated
after a case of frostbite to stop the gangrene from spread-
ing. One coal miner who had been brought up to the sur-
face on a stretcher after a cave-in had crushed his chest,
lay on the ground for fifteen minutes before he was taken
to the hospital. His chest finally healed but the short ex-
posure to the cold and snow made it necessary to ampu-
tate all his toes and nine fingers.
I never noticed the poor condition of the prisoners until
later, when I injured myself and had to go to a dispen-
sary. There I saw how skinny they were. Their pelvic
bones were actually protruding through the skin, and
from this they were seeking relief; all they got was a new
bandage; no extra food, no time off from work.
My own injury consisted of a broken rib and two
cracked ribs, suffered during work after I had been at
Vorkuta for three weeks. The coal car I had been han-
dling hooked into my jacket and pinned me between the
car's sharp corner and a pillar in the corridor where the
Luckily, this occurred at the end of a shift, and I was
able soon to leave for the camp. I explained to the doctor
what had happened. Because it happened at work, he
told me, I must have the mine doctor make a report of
the accident. So he gave me a day off to get things settled
with the mine.
The next day began one of my monthly three-day rests,
and I did not go to the mine until the second day after
the accident. The report was made out by the mine doc-
tor, without any trouble, and I went to my department
boss to have it countersigned. He said to me: "You had
an accident and broke a rib, so you cannot work. How
long will it take to get better?"
"Maybe three or four weeks," I replied.
He came close to me and said: "I like you, Ameri-
kanitz, and I want you to work for me, but if I sign this
for you, then the next thing I do will be to kick you out.
Slave l-E-241 will work and die in the darkest corner of
"But why?" I asked. "I didn't break my rib intention-
"I know," he replied, "but look: if I sign this, the camp
will send you to a place to rest, all right, but I am the
department boss and I will have to pay for the time you
don't work, and the chief engineer won't get his bonus.
You have to confess that you injured yourself intention-
ally and then take an additional sentence. If you don't do
this, you will have to find some way out, but not at my
expense. I'll help you along and give you a few days'
rest at the mine, and some light work to cover a few
weeks, but that's all I can do."
I went off to seek advice on how to close the door that
I had opened at the dispensary. My brigadier suggested
a second accident, not at the mine but in the camp; I then
could say that the first injury was only a sprain but that
the camp injury did the real damage. In this way, because
the time I lost was not the result of an injury during work-
ing hours, the department boss would not be personally
responsible for the time I lost from work.
I carried out this suggestion, and so had a day's further
rest in the camp and a few at the mine. The chief benefit
was that I could stay on the surface and have a boss I
could get on with.
When we arrived at Mine 16 on the bitter day that I
narrowly escaped frostbite on my chin, there was another
roll call. Mishka, a student from Stalingrad, was missing,
lost somewhere in the snow corridor. None of the guards
volunteered to search for him. The next day, when the
storm subsided, his frozen body was found buried face
down in the snow. The cold had frozen a pained, lifelike
expression in place.
My job at Mine 16 was pushing a two-ton car full of
slate. My partner, a Latvian who had done it before,
briefed me in sign language on what I was supposed to
do. The waste slate dug up with the coal came up the
nrne elevator and was dumped into metal cars on tracks.
The two of us were supposed to push the car 160 yards
by hand, then tilt and unload the slate into another car
below our platform. I had to do this seventy times a day,
back and forth.
I looked at the tracks covered with snow and the loaded
two-ton car. It's impossible, I thought.
Unfortunately, it was only nearly impossible, and I be-
came a human locomotive for the next fourteen months.
I pushed with my shoulder, jabbing it against the car until
my shoulder turned almost permanently blue. Tilting
the car was a superhuman strain. The first time I did it,
I felt as if my backbone was bending and ready to snap.
I never got used to it.
After I dumped the slate, an American-made electric
pulley brought it to the top of a sixty-foot-high heap,
where it was dumped again.
Every few days I was assigned to work at the top of the
heap. The climate sixty feet up was not unlike that on a
15,000-foot Alpine peak. It was horrible. The icy, pricking
wind almost hurled me off the slate mountain with every
step. It took hours to do the work of minutes.
I worked without protection against the weather. Our
tracks were covered overhead with a thin porchlike roof,
but we were usually exposed on both sides to the cold,
the snow, and the wind. According to GULAG regula-
tions, we weren't supposed to work on the surface in tem-
peratures lower than forty below zero (work went on at
all times in the mine), but that was a joke. Major Tchev-
chenko was responsible to MGB General Derevyenko,
boss of all Vorkuta, who was in turn responsible to the
Kremlin for Vorkuta's coal output. They wouldn't coun-
tenance a day's stoppage — even, it was said, if the mus-
tache froze on Stalin's statue in Vorkuta. I worked in
lifty and sixty below, my head buried against my shoul-
der in a pitiful attempt to ward off the cold. One day the
thermometer dropped quickly to 72 below Centigrade
(—90 Fahrenheit), where it stayed for three hours, freez-
ing the axle grease on my car. But there was still no letup
in the work.
More than half the time, we worked in almost inky
blackness. During January and February, I worked by
starlight at noontime — an eerie experience for one still
not used to the Arctic.
I had no gloves, but I managed to steal some oil rags
out of the mechanic's shop and wrapped them around
my hands. I wrapped my feet in large rags, which were
actually warmer than socks. (The Red army uses rags
too.) But nothing could keep the cold out. After an houfs
work, I was so chilled and exhausted, my face, hands, and
feet so numb that I cried like a child.
Officially there was no break in our work, not a min-
ute out for rest or lunch (there was no lunch), but the
great institutional Russian inefficiency saved my life. One
day, the mine elevator stopped working. There was no
slate coming up to us to be pushed in my "baby carriage;"
A Latvian prisoner pointed across a field to a small build-
ing, the mine powerhouse. In a combination of sign lan-
guage, Russian, German, and English, he explained that it
would be about ten minutes before the elevator would be
fixed. I raced to the powerhouse, where I was greeted by
smiling Russian prisoners warming themselves over a
stove. I felt great, except that my boots got wet from the
melting snow and they froze when I went out again. From
the powerhouse I could hear the signals — two bells for
coal, five for slate.
Mechanically, the Soviet mines are very poorly
equipped. This is because of Russia's backwardness, in
part, but also because of another factor which the execu-
tive engineer explained to me. While Russia has — both
on paper and in "show" mines — the most modern ma-
chinery, it would not be possible to put this to use gen-
erally. Because a modern machine can be operated by
one person, replacing from one hundred to two hundred
men, this one person is able, if he is "evil-minded" (anti-
Communist), to slow down or stop the work of up to two
hundred men as represented in the output of the machine.
If you have the people themselves to do the work, little
harm results if one or two out of a hundred are evil-
minded. Why take the risk of using machines?
The mine elevator was a machine they could not re-
place by man power. Therefore they used the best one
available, an American lock hoister built in Iowa in 1913.
Almost all electrical machinery was made in America or
I felt more and more like a primitive slave, my starv-
ing body pushing a two-ton car in an age of mechani-
zation. I did not know the language, and I worked all day
without a real friend at my side, for they changed part-
ners regularly. I was sure that slaves in other times and
places had a better deal than this.
The first seven months of the winter 1950-1951, I had
just enough stamina to make it back to the camp every
night. After "supper" in the stolovaya, our mess hall, I
collapsed on my hard shelf in my filthy, snow-soaked
work clothes. My face was a deep red from the cold, and
for two hours after coming indoors I felt as if a log fire
were six inches from my nose. I could hardly lift my stiff
legs. My shoulder was blue from the slate car, and the
palms of my hands had turned to elephant skin, each
palm a large callous insensitive to cold, heat, or pain.
The starvation, climate and work had eaten away my
body fat and left me a skin covering that hung over my
bones. My weight had dropped to 95 pounds. Where my
bones pushed against the skin, the skin turned a deeper
brown than the rest of my yellowing but still not bleeding
body. My rear end just disappeared. With the fat eaten
away, the skin hung in big folds like a toy accordion.
The lack of oxygen in the Vorkuta air complicated my
problems. I longed for sleep, but even sleeping all through
my day off (three days a month) couldn't shake that all-
God, I'm near the end of my rope, I thought to myself
desperately one night. If the Reds push me just a little
further, I'll break.
The other prisoners were even more wretched looking
than I was (although the Russians among us took Vor-
kuta fatalistically: "What can we do? The regime and I
were never friends. The MVD won, so we are here.").
They were ill and decrepit far beyond their age. Ninety
percent of them suffered from abnormally high blood pres-
sure or heart disease, the blights of the polar region. I
had only a slight case of high blood pressure, but my
wrists and ankles swelled regularly into puffy masses of
skin. Everyone had a cadaverous appearance (average
weight was 75-115 pounds), a fact that hit me hard every
ten days when we were taken to the camp banya, or bath,
to get a hot bath and shave and to have our slave's mark
of distinction restored — the head shaved down to shiny,
hairless scalp. With our clothes off and the filth washed
away, the pelvic bones stood out clearly. Only the Baltic
prisoners, who received excellent food packages from home
when Tchevchenko allowed it, looked any better.
Our teeth rotted from lack of vitamins. There was no
dental care — only extractions. Most men had half their
teeth missing, especially the lowers. I lost a few, and those
I have left are discolored, eaten away, and shaky. Dental
problems followed a pattern. The gums around a tooth
would start to swell. The expanding fluid inside the flesh
gradually pressed against the tooth until it loosened and
fell out helplessly — generally while one was eating, espe-
cially the leathery reindeer meat served Vorkuta style.
Some prisoners frantically tried to stop the inevitable proc-
ess by puncturing the swelling gums with a needle and
draining the fluid.
There was one boon to health. The cold that chilled
the life out of us was itself a lifesaver. It was just too cold
for most bacteria to live in Vorkuta. Otherwise, epidem-
ics would have destroyed us in a year. Only tuberculosis,
probably aggravated by the coal dust, was common.
The heavy labor was almost impossible to avoid. Re-
fusing to work meant time in the cold cell. Prisoners were
stripped down to light clothing and put into an unheated
stone room, hands chained to the wall, thighs straddled
over a concrete block that rubbed the fierce 40- or 50-
below cold into the sensitive skin on the inside of the
thigh. (Later, a friend, Ivan Simkovich, who had been
accused of purposely slowing down his work, was sen-
tenced to five days in the cold cell. "After one night in
the cold cell you'll do anything they want," he told me.
"It kept preying on my mind. All I wanted to do was get
into a warm room.")
No one stood directly over us while we worked, but we
had our Communist "norm," more diabolical than any
ancient slavemaster. My "norm" was to transport all the
slate that came up the mine elevator. Others had more
specific tasks — so many feet of shoring in the main
shafts, so many tons of coal to be dug, so many feet of
coal-car tracks to be laid. Those of us who didn't fulfill
their norms were put on punishment rations of less than
half the normal diet. It was a vicious cycle. Those too
weak to do their work were put on punishment rations.
They became weaker and less able to fulfill their norms.
The brigadiers, who are always anxious to get the best
workers, shunted these poor starving souls from job to
job until their emaciated bodies just expired. Those who
were fortunate enough might have a sympathetic jeldshar
(one of the half -trained doctors of Vorkuta) declare him
fit for only lighter work.
Conditions in the camp hospital were primitive. Ac-
cording to the theory that sick men weren't working and
therefore needed less to eat, patients were given only half
the normal ration. Only those who had undergone sur-
gery had real beds — the others slept on shelves as we did.
But it was still a sought-after haven, a rest from the gruel-
ing work and cold.
The hospital was run by a good-looking twenty-year-
old girl, called "Doctor." She was actually a jeldshar with a
year of medical-school training. She cursed like a ten-
year veteran of Vorkuta, but basically she was pretty nice.
Still she had to turn dying men away from the hospital.
According to GULAG regulations, only a very small per-
centage of the work force could be sick on any given day.
A high fever was the only excuse to get in. In the win-
ter of 1950 a group of prisoners transferred to Vorkuta
from southern Russia brought in a virus that infected the
entire camp within a few days. Only those with 101 Fahr-
enheit or higher could be excused from work. My fever
got quite high, and I spent a welcome week in the hos-
pital. I was given little medication or care, but it was a
chance to sleep.
Some slaves who couldn't take the grind dreamed up
elaborate escape plans, but these always failed. Three
prisoners in a barracks near the fence dug a tunnel from
the drying room under the fence to the outside. They
made white capes from stolen sheets and skis from old
whittled-down boards. They broke out during a snow-
storm, but soon lost track of one another. One fell into
the hands of a guard at a neighboring camp. Another
wandered in a circle for a day and ended up back at
Camp 3. The third was found dead in the snow three days
Until 1948, escapees were shot immediately. After that,
however, they would be thrown into the cold cell — but
not before the MVD guards gave them a going over. Since
a successful escape would probably mean death for the
guards responsible, they beat up everyone who tried, as a
warning to the other slaves. I saw one of the three men
who broke out on skis. He was lying limp on the floor of
the guards' hut at the main gate, his face bloated from
There was really only one way to beat the Communists,
and many prisoners used it. That was to disable yourself
so badly that you could only be a floor sweeper or the
sushilchik, the stoker of the barracks stove.
One evening in the middle of the first winter, I was sleep-
ing on my shelf when a loud yell from the end of the bar-
racks startled me. Quickly jerking myself up off the shelf,
I saw an Asiatic Russian prisoner, a fierce-looking Kal-
muk, one of the remnants of what was once the Kalmuk
Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. He had been ar-
rested during World War II resisting the Russian genocide
of his entire nation. The Russians killed and imprisoned
almost all the 225,000 Kalmuks, including babies and
women, and discontinued the "republic" in 1943 when the
Kalmuks refused to fight for their Soviet oppressors.
He stood in the center of the aisle. In his left hand was
a hatchet he had stolen from the mine. All eyes were on
him. He placed his right hand palm down on a stool di-
rectly under the naked electric bulb.
"Russki Cherti! [Russian Devils!] No more work from
me!" he shrieked at the top of his lungs.
As the words came out, his left hand swung the hatchet
down in a resounding blow that struck the hand just above
the knuckles, severing his four fingers cleanly from his
hand. As he lifted the stump, the blood fountained out and
covered his face and clothes. The force of the blow had
thrown what once were four fingers onto the floor. His eyes
were shining with fierce pride. He wrapped two filthy rags
around the remains of his hand to absorb the blood,
crawled back onto his shelf, and chanted himself to sleep,
cursing the Russians. The Kalmuk spent two months in
the camp jail, but he never again did a day's heavy work
for the MVD.
Others rubbed dirt into self-inflicted foot or leg wounds
and massaged the wounds until they couldn't walk. Some
had their friends crush their wrists with six-inch poles. The
shrewd ones threw apoplectic fits and tried to simulate
high blood pressure by drinking vast amounts of fluids be-
fore an examination. Some succeeded, others got time in
the cold cell and heavy jail sentences for "sabotage."
Tchevchenko blanched and raged with fury at the news of
any new self-made cripple. He was deathly afraid the trend
would spread and that his wards, Mines 12, 14, and 16,
would no longer send enough coal to warm Leningrad.
I LIVED IN TfflS
mad world for more than half a year almost entirely
alone, and with little to occupy my mind. Playing cards
and singing were strictly forbidden. No more than five
men were allowed to congregate at one time. Radio
Moscow blared out of the barracks loudspeaker in a for-
eign language I couldn't speak or write, and which I could
hardly understand. As I later found out, there were some
women, but I was a Vorkuta greenhorn. Each of the na-
tionalities was organized into something resembling com-
munity life, but, besides an odd Canadian, I was the only
American in my camp. (I had heard rumors about Private
William Marchuk, Private William Verdine, and two other
Americans, Homer Cox and Towers, as well as many
others, but I had no chance to meet them.)
Days passed into weeks, weeks into months. I wondered
whether the U.S. government knew where I was. Were
they doing anything? I received no mail or packages
(Tchevchenko wouldn't let them through even if they ar-
rived), and I wasn't allowed to write my mother and
brother George in Detroit, or my father, who I thought
was still in a Russian prison in East Germany (actually he
was released in 1952 and was back in Detroit), or the U.S.
Embassy in Moscow. They even refused me a Red Cross
postcard, a basic international right.
But mostly I thought about food — strangely enough,
not about exotic dishes or steaks or ice cream, but plain
milk and fruit. I saw shining white glasses of milk and
clean pears and apples in my dreams. But I never saw
them in reality for nine years.
Sitting on my bunk, I watched some of the other lucky
ones get packages from home, for them the difference
between life and death. The Russian packages from the
rural areas were good evidence of the widespread pov-
erty, generally just a bag of onions, some tea leaves, and
dried vegetables. Only rarely they included a small piece
of bacon. The Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians, whose
countries' former prosperity hasn't yet been completely
destroyed by Red rule, got full, wholesome packages of
candies, sugar, bacon, lard, and sausages. Each package
was quickly divided among the prisoner's hungry friends,
who tried to make the wonderful gifts last a day or two.
Unless it was cleverly hidden, though, food or dried bread
might not be husbanded. Molkov, a short, hated MVD
guard (unlike most others, easy-going slobs who closed
their eyes to most things unless another guard was along),
regarded food saved for a hungry day as "evidence" that a
slave was making "escape preparations." It was worth six
weeks in the bor for one of our Lithuanians, Scichkauskas.
My stomach envied those who got packages or who had
friends who got packages. I had neither. Then I heard
there was a chance to pick up bits of leftover food down at
the kitchen after the evening meal. One night, before the
evening roll call, when we were locked in for the night, I
went to the stolovaya and approached one of the well-fed
"Yeda, yeda" ("Food, food"), I begged in rehearsed
Russian. I pointed longingly at the discarded fish heads
and a small pile of kasha, scrapings off the prisoner-offi-
cials' plates. The cook looked me over to see if I was a
friend, a friend of a friend, or a quick man with substan-
tial Mat (bribe money). When he decided he didn't know
me from Adam, he kicked me out of the kitchen with a
menacing wave of his food chopper. I went back to the
barracks a little hungrier, lonely, and more disgruntled
thing in Vorkuta depends on who you know," Vaska, a
Ukrainian in my barracks, told me. "With enough blat
the guards and brigadiers will give you the right job. There
are few Russians that can't be bribed. You need friends in
the kitchen for a little extra food, and a contact in the hos-
pital will also never hurt you. If you are part of a tight-knit
group, not even the blatnois will bother you." He was right.
Learning Russian was my first survival project. My
teacher was a barracks mate, Ivan, a former student at
Moscow University, one of the many disgruntled Soviet in-
tellectuals. Without realizing it, I had already picked up a
few words on the slate job — "pull," "stop," and others
from the guards' commands. In no time I was making ex-
cellent progress. "Soon you will speak better than many of
the Ukrainians," Ivan said. I worked at it every spare min-
ute, and in a short time could speak halting, grammatically
Now that I was out of my cocoon, my circle of friends
grew rapidly. Three prisoners, Vaska, Ivan, and Alexia,
became my closest friends. Vaska, a twenty-five-year-old,
short, dark-haired Ukrainian peasant, worked the electro-
pulley that hauled my slate to the top of the heap. A fer-
vent Ukrainian nationalist, Vaska fought with the Ukrai-
nian Banders army during World War II against both the
Nazis and Communists. Ivan, a thirty-year-old Ukrainian,
had some secondary education — somewhat of a rarity in
the rural areas. He hated the Communists with a passion
reserved for Ukrainians. Three million of his people died
of famine in 1932 during the severe drought. Red troops
closed the Russian-Ukrainian border to keep the starving
people from leaving, and stole whatever grain existed.
Both Ivan's parents had been deported to Siberia.
"Millions were sent to Siberia or killed in the 'thirties
when the Communists forced us to collectivize our farms,"
another Ukrainian told me. "When Hitler invaded Russia
it was a chance to fight back against the Kremlin. We had
millions of soldiers ready to destroy Stalin. But when we
saw that Hitler was no better — he kidnaped thousands of
our people to work in his factories and had no intention of
giving us independence — we had to fight on both fronts.
We died on the west against the Nazis and on the east
against the Communists. It was hopeless."
Alexia was a Russian from Smolensk. He had been ar-
rested in 1946 while a senior high school student, charged
with the ubiquitous Paragraph 58-10, Agitation, the
standard charge for anything from telling jokes about
Stalin to intellectual deviationism.
My new friends made life a little more bearable. I shared
in their meager food packages sent from home. Sometimes
a friend in the kitchen could find a little extra cabbage soup
or fat to help protect my 95 pounds against the cold. When
I went to the camp hospital later, my friends brought me
bread saved from their own rations, and other favors for
which I'll always be grateful.
Learning Russian dispelled another fear. The language
is so harsh I always thought everyone was screaming at
me. Later I realized it was just a way of speaking. Actually
the Russians are far from firm. They are masters of bluff —
but when you stand up to them aggressively, they invari-
ably back down.
Through my triumvirate and my new command of the
language, I came to know the more than one hundred
other slaves in my barracks, and others throughout Vor-
kuta. Vorkuta was a veritable League of Nations, and it
contained many notables of the Communist world. The
former First Secretary of the Communist Party of Estonia,
who had labored to turn his country over to the Soviet, was
handing out food in the stolovaya of Mine 29.
There were slaves who had been deputy ministers of
East Germany and satellite countries, and regional leaders,
of the Communist Party itself. Gureyvich, a Russian Jew
and former Soviet diplomat, was in Camp 3 just a few
barracks from me. He had been recalled from France by
the Kremlin shortly after World War II (when the "cold,
war" policy developed) and arrested by MVD agents as
he stepped off the plane in Moscow. We had a colleague of
Trotsky, who had been in dozens of slave camps for the
last nineteen years; a former Professor of History at the:
University of Leningrad, and many former university stu-
dents. A barracks mate, Dmitri Bespalo, an active mem-
ber of the Young Communist League (Komsomol) at the
University of Kiev, was serving fifteen years for "agita-
We had many former CP members from East Germany,.
who were arrested in periodic purges from 1946 to 1950.
There were even two Spanish Communists who had been
in Odessa in the thirties expediting war materials to the
Spanish Loyalists during the Civil War. They stayed on in
Russia after Franco won, and a year later were arrested for
"espionage." Most of the ex-Communists were disillu-
sioned with what they consider the Kremlin's perversion of
Not everyone in Vorkuta was an ex-Red. We were a
polyglot army of slaves from every walk of life and almost
every nation in the world. In Camp 3 we had Poles who
had served with the Allies in General Anders's army dur-
ing World War II and were arrested back in Poland when
the Communists took full control in 1947. There were hun-
dreds of Baltic people — Lithuanians, Latvians and Esto-
nians, whose nations had been gobbled up in 1940 and
made into Soviet republics.
"When the Russians realized they couldn't really com-
munize us," a Latvian, a former resident of Riga, told me,
"they started to bring hundreds of thousands of Russians
in to live in our country. They sent our people in exile to
Siberia. Those of us who fought the deportation are here
in Vorkuta, or in Karaganda or Irkutsk, or other slave
camps instead of living in collectives in Siberia. Well, may-
be there isn't much difference anyway."
Another Latvian had been a student at the University
of Riga before his arrest. A prominent athlete, he had
often visited Moscow with various sports groups. He con-
fided to me that a good part of the Russian Olympic teams
are actually made up of closely guarded, blond-haired
anti-Communist athletes from the Baltic nations.
There were slaves from Iraq, Iran, Italy, Mongolia,
China, and Czechoslovakia and later two North Koreans
accused of disloyalty to their regime. There were a num-
ber of Russian and Ukrainian Jews, victims of Stalin's anti-
Semitic pogroms of 1949-1953. In Camp 3 alone there
were ten Greeks who had been taken prisoner by the Com-
munists during their civil war. One of my barracks mates
was a young Hungarian, James, a former university stu-
dent in Budapest. He had been arrested as a "Western
agent," allegedly for spreading Colorado potato bugs, thus
causing the bad potato crop in Hungary. There were hun-
dreds of Germans, both Communists and Nazis, and some
former SS troopers. We had representation from France in
one prisoner, Rene (his wife was in the women's com-
pound), who had been attached to the French government
unit in West Berlin; an Englishman named Chapman
(in Camp 10), a British army man who had been cap-
tured by the Germans in Holland. He was liberated in
1945 by the Russians from a Nazi PW camp, then
promptly rearrested by the Reds and sent to Vorkuta.
When I met him in mid- 1954, his mind had been almost
completely destroyed. Eve Robinson, a good-looking
blonde Englishwoman, about thirty, was in the women's
A number of my fellow prisoners were clergymen, Cath-
olic priests from Lithuania, Protestant ministers from Lat-
via and Germany, and Russian Orthodox priests who were
the only ones allowed to keep their long beards. Religion
was one of the most serious crimes in Vorkuta. Possession
of a Bible meant at least a month in jail.
But, despite all controls, religion flourished. Some
groups held services at an altar in an unused hallway of
the mine. A group of Baptists sat together at the evening
meal in the stolovaya and prayed. When an MVD guard
came over, they said: "There is nothing wrong, Chort
fdevil]. We are just praying." (The guards in Vorkuta
took the slaves' imprecations philosophically.)
On free days I sometimes attended Protestant services
given by a Latvian minister. It was in a different barracks
each time. It was dangerous, but only if two or more
guards came along. Individual guards made believe they
saw nothing and walked away. A Lithuanian priest in my
barracks was arrested regularly. But after two months in
the bor, he would return each time to minister to his flock.
I was the only American in Camp 3, but I had contact
with a few men who claimed to be Americans. In Camp
10, where I lived in 1953 and 1954, there was a William
Vlasilefsky, an English-speaking, Russian-born prisoner
who claimed to be an American citizen. He said that he
lived most of his early life in the Western states and that
part of his family was still living in Seattle. According to
Vlasilefsky, he was in the United States army in the early
thirties, then migrated to China, where he started a suc-
cessful business. In 1949, the Chinese Reds called him to
Peiping, where he was arrested and sent to the Soviet as a
Then there was Roy Linder, in Vorkuta called Adolf
Eichenbaum, a prominent Vorkuta citizen. I met him in
the hospital in 1950. Later he would come over to my bar-
racks once in a while to talk. He spoke perfect English
and, for that matter, equally good Russian, German, Swed-
ish, and Chinese, We reminisced about Detroit (he had
been a stunt flier at the Michigan State Fair) and about
the States in general. Linder was very tall and balding and
had a scarred chin that was twisted to one side, the result,
he said, of a plane crash. According to his story, he was
born in Vancouver, British Columbia, was an American
citizen and a colonel in the United States Air Force, one
of our commanding officers at Templehof Airport in
West Berlin. During World War II he had been a U.S.
army pilot in China, and prior to the war had flown as a
"neutral" observer in the Spanish war.
According to Linder's version of his arrest, he had been
kidnaped by the Communists in West Berlin in 1949 and
dragged over to the eastern sector. After a year in Lubi-
anka prison in Moscow, he had been shipped to Vorkuta
as a slave laborer.
His story seemed convincing (except for occasional ref-
erences to himself as major instead of colonel), but his
short sentence of five years for Paragraph 58-6, "Espio-
nage," made everyone suspicious. An American officer
(unless he was trusted by the MVD) would undoubtedly
have been tagged with a fifteen-to-twenty-five-year sen-
tence. He had a local reputation as a person who might be
pro-Communist. He seemed to have more freedom of ac-
tion than the other slaves, more to eat, and more respect
from the guards and MVD officers. My friends warned
me not to trust him — that he was probably an MVD
stuckachey — an informer.
"Don't worry, Johnny. I won't make any trouble for
you," Linder once told me in an unguarded moment.
The last time I saw Linder was just before he was re-
leased by pardon. He sent me a note a few weeks later,
saying that he was in Vorkuta working in the village pow-
erhouse as a free worker. He had a girl friend in Rostov in
South Russia and hoped to go and meet her. I have no idea
whether he was ever allowed to leave the Vorkuta area, or
what has since become of him.
Many other Americans are still in the Soviet, working
as slave laborers. I heard that an American engineer,
seized while working for the Reds in Vladivostok, is still
in Lubianka prison in Moscow. According to newly ar-
rived slaves coming from Moscow, so is Stalin's son, Lt.
Gen. Vassily Stalin. But a Yugoslav who had been im-
prisoned only a hundred miles from Vorkuta told me more
"I spoke with eight of your countrymen," the Yugoslav
told me. "They said they were American fliers who had
been shot down by the Russians over the Baltic Sea. The
Air Force has, of course, acknowledged that several B~29s
and B-50s on routine missions were downed over the Bal-
tic. One of them told me he was afraid they would never
get back to America. The Russians had reported them
dead, saying there were no survivors of the crash."
Prisoners being funneled into Vorkuta from camps in
Tadzhik and Irkutsk in Soviet Asia, Omsk in Siberia, and
Magadan in the Far East said there were many Americans,
including veterans of the Korean War, both GIs and offi-
cers, and South Korean soldiers, working as slave laborers
in their camps. From what I heard, they were PWs cap-
tured by the Communist Chinese and North Koreans who
had been shipped to the Soviet for safe-keeping.
Some of the Ukrainians in our camp literally fell over
every newcomer, questioning him on what prison camp he
had come from and how many prisoners were there.
Through adding, cross-checking, and striking averages,
it was possible to establish a fair approximation to the
number of people interned in Russia. The total population
of the Vorkuta complex lay between four and five hundred
thousand working in mines, brick factories, power plants,
railroad lines, streets, city and village construction, food
transportation, prison help, and hospitals. According to
records we were able to piece together, throughout the
entire Soviet Union in mid- 1954 a total of twenty-five to
twenty-eight million people were held in slave-labor camps,
concentration camps, secret camps for foreigners, PW
camps, repatriation camps, MVD prisons, investigation
centers, MGB prisons, juvenile labor camps, and juvenile
detention homes. An additional twelve million not in cus-
tody were interned in restricted areas. All told, a mon-
strous mass of slaves and persecuted peoples.
out much of Vorkuta simply as the "Amerikanitz,"
day and night I was pounded by my fellow prisoners with
questions. How does a worker live in America? How long
does he have to work for a suit? It was a generally preva-
lent opinion that America is the wealthiest country in the
world. One of our civilian Communist department mana-
gers, a native of the Komi Republic, told me his people
lived solely off American canned food during World War
II. Most of the shoes still worn in the area came
from American war relief.
The Russians themselves admit the superiority. The
first few months I was in Vorkuta, a large cloth banner
that hung near our mine said: "Follow the example of
American technic" (technology). Another Red poster,
which may still be hanging in Vorkuta, exhorted the slaves
to "approach, reach, and pass capitalist production." Even
in Soviet propaganda films, Americans are pictured as
better dressed than any Russian I ever met.
I answered questions about America day and night, but
I doubt that they believed more than ten percent of what
I told them. My wretched fellow slaves couldn't even imag-
ine a world such as I pictured — until years later, after my
almost daily descriptions.
"Johnny," Alexia once told me incredulously, "you
would have us believe American workers drive their own
Ivan and Vaska had been Vorkuta slaves since 1946.
They were two of the few who survived the horrible early
days. Vorkuta's rich coal fields were discovered in 1936,
but they weren't exploited until 1942, when the Germans
captured the rich Donbas coal region. The first mine was
opened by slave labor in 1944, and by 1946 the Russians
were expanding the area rapidly.
Ivan told me about it. "They drove us by truck up to
this northern region of Vorkuta. There was nothing up
there then, just the freezing open tundra. They left us the
truck, gasoline, a few guards and some food. 'This is your
life,' the Reds told us, 'make of it what you can.' Only the
Russians could have such nerve. Wood from the Vorkuta
sawmill was transported to our isolated outpost. The first
thing we were forced to build was a fence to enclose our-
"We lived in the open for over a month — in wood-lined
holes dug in the ground and in tents. We lived off Ameri-
can canned food. Only after the fence was done, did they
let us build regular barracks. More than half the men died
of exposure and overwork."
During 1947 and 1948, the death rate was unbelievable,
Vaska told me. "You are lucky to be here now. You have a
chance to live. Things are much more civilized."
I didn't feel very civilized. Despite a small improvement,
I was starving. One day, one of my new barracks mates, a
Hungarian doctor (and ex-wrestler) came over to my
"Johnny, did you ever eat a dog?" he asked.
Normally, the thought would sicken me. But the last
meat I had eaten was a two-inch piece of tough reindeer
meat two weeks before.
"How does it taste?" I asked greedily.
"Very tender and tasty — especially when it's roasted."
That night at work we went dog hunting. The dogs of
the guards, and other dogs from the nearby posiyolok,
the settlements of the "free people," sometimes wandered
into our camp. I went equipped with a thick stick and a
stolen kitchen knife in my pocket. We waited near the
main mine shaft. Suddenly the doctor spotted a dog chas-
ing around the office building. He beckoned to him. As
the dog approached us, I swiftly brought the thick pole
down on his skull with all my strength. He fell into the
"Give me your knife, Johnny."
The doctor cut him open deftly as if he were performing
an extensive surgery. We let the blood run out on the snow.
We cut the body up into pieces and roasted it on top of my
sixty-foot slate heap. When the top pieces of slate were
pulled back in places, a natural phosphorus in the mine
waste started a spontaneous fire, perfect for roasting meat.
We had a hearty meal, then hid the remaining pieces two
feet under the snow (a natural deep freeze that could pre-
serve meat for a hundred years) at the four corners of the
mine office building.
The doctor was right. Dog meat, I found, has a taste all
its own, but if anything, it is softer and tastier than beef.
In all, the doctor and I ate up two dogs. The pieces, kept
hidden in the snow, fed us for months.
THE DOCTOR WAS
a very resourceful slave and a valuable friend. We slaves
were at the mercy of the blatnois and the Red officials, but
the doctor was not. His weapon was a supposedly powerful
sex potion. The frigid polar weather tremendously reduced
the sex drive of the men in Vorkuta — slaves and officials
alike. For some, like myself, it was a blessing. It was one
less misery. But for the civilian mine officials with wives
and girl friends, and those who had access to prostitutes,
it seemed worse than death.
The doctor came to the rescue. From Georgian prison-
ers who wrote their relatives, he got hold of a type of cac-
tus, which arrived packed in honey. From the plant, he
made a drug that he sold in a series of fifteen injections for
as much as 300 rubles. His customers, including the chief
engineer of Mine 16, swore that it was an aphrodisiac su-
preme, but I personally never believed it had anything but
I sometimes helped the doctor give the shots (he once
had ten series going simultaneously), and he rewarded
me with a rabbit, which I cooked in the powerhouse and
Sex was openly for sale in Vorkuta to those who could
afford it. For the 4500 men in Camp 3, there were ten
women, all "free people." They worked the mine ventilators
on the surface, switching them off and on, depending on the
amount of coal gas in the air. Their lot was not much bet-
ter than ours. Many of them were former woman prisoners,
who now lived in exile in the little settlement near
the camp. They earned 400 rubles a month, which wasn't
enough to live on. For extra money they turned to prosti-
tution. The standard fee was twenty-five rubles. Only two
of the women were attractive. The rest were typically
Russian, built like trucks. Some of them were tattooed
like the blatnois and they all cursed with a vengeance that
put us to shame. But it didn't seem to hurt their business.
The first years, when we had no money, the prostitutes
were a luxury of the prisoner-officials, blatnois, and free
people. In addition to the girl's fee, an equal amount of
blat was required to buy off the guard.
An experienced fellow prisoner explained the system to
me. "The meeting place is behind the big fan of the mine
ventilator. There is a platform there which is one of the
warm places in the mine. If a guard who is not bribed
should come along, the customer climbs up to the roof of
the ventilator building through a trap door, and the girl
explains that she was sweeping out behind the fan."
My biggest fear after the first year of pushing the slate
car was being forced to work down in the mine. I was half
destroyed by working in the cold, but I had also spent one
frightening day below watching the animal-like slaves
In June 1951 a mining commission arrived from Mos-
cow to study coal production in Vorkuta.
The result was an announcement that the strongest pris-<
oners (that included me) were to work below in the mines.
I was to be transferred the next week. Quickly I went to
see the department manager of transportation, a young
Communist civilian employee of the MVD.
"What can I do for you, Amerikanitz?" he asked.
"I'm being sent below. I wonder if I could also do trans-
portation work down in the mine. It would be better than
"Anything would be better than that," he laughed. "I'll
see what I can do."
I'll never know for sure, but probably because I was an
American — and as such, a minor Vorkuta VIP — he trans-
ferred me to mine transportation. My job was coupling
coal cars and guiding the small trains through the narrow
Vorkuta Mine 16 was a precarious, primitive hole. With
little modern equipment and no conception of safety, we
had cave-ins almost every week in which one or more
slaves were killed or injured. The ceilings of the mine tun-
nels often collapsed because the wooden posts that shored
up the ceiling were spaced too far apart. The department
managers saved the wood that was provided for shoring
and sold it to the Komi nomads, pocketing the cash. An-
other scheme was to show a saving of so many feet of wood
on their monthly reports and receive a government bonus.
The slaves who did the propping didn't care. Wider
spacing meant less work and, since they covered a greater
distance, a better "norm." Their safety was secondary to
fulfilling the "norm" and getting a plate of soup to eat the
One time, twenty-four men were killed because of prim-
itive equipment. We had no spools for electric cable. It
had to be transported through the mine on the shoulders
of two dozen of the strongest men. The cable was coated
on the outside with tin. The coating at one point was defec-
tive. The men were soaking wet from water that dripped
from the thawing ice on the ceiling. The result was the
instantaneous electrocution of all twenty-four men.
My work was in the narrow mine tunnels that connected
the coal faces. The air in the hallway smelled sweet, like
rotted mushrooms. When I licked my lips, I tasted gas.
Smoking was prohibited, but the machorka hounds smoked
anywhere. As a result, we had frequent flash fires that lit
up the mine like day. The water dripped from the ceiling
constantly. By the end of a day's work, I was soaked
through. As I hurried home through the forty- and fifty-
below-zero weather, my clothes froze into an icy board.
Each morning I brought a piece of bread with me for
my lunch. It was stuffed next to my body under my shirt.
When I was ready to eat it, it was soaked like a sponge with
water and perspiration, smelling of gas, and black from
coal soot — but food always tastes good to a starving man.
After eating the bread, I cupped my hands and drank the
water that dripped from the ceiling. It was prohibited as
being polluted, but it was refreshing.
The hallways were six feet wide at the base, and tapered
to about four feet at the ceiling. The coal-car tracks took
up most of the width except for a foot-wide wooden trough
for the falling water that ran along the edge of the tunnel.
When a coal car passed, I had to jump to keep from being
crushed. Where the hallway was wide enough, I could press
snugly against the wall between two pieces of shoring and
watch the car pass within inches of my chest. Usually,
though, I had to dive face-first into the wooden trough,
my body kept as much out of the water as possible by el-
bows and knees.
My brigadier, a Russian German from the Volga Basin,
explained my duties.
"We have no automatic switches here, Amerikanitz,"
he said. "You have to set up the coal trains by coupling
the cars, then ride up front and throw the switches your-
He made it sound simple. Actually, as I found out, I
had to make up physically what the Russians lacked in
modern equipment. I rode at the head of a long train of
small coal cars. I stood on the bumper, the searchlight on
my pressed cardboard helmet trained on the dark tracks
ahead. There were no lights other than my searchlight. I
scanned the tracks as carefully as possible for open
switches. The switches were placed at random all over this
catacomb network of coal tracks. When I saw an open
switch in time, about five or six feet ahead, I jumped off
the bumper, threw the switch, then raced for cover against
the wall before the train ran me over. A few moments later,
I waved down the engineer of the locomotive thirty cars
back. He stopped and picked me up.
Sometimes I couldn't make the switch in time. The first
time this happened, I had been bobbing my head up and
down to let the searchlight dance all over the tracks. I
knew one of the switches was somewhere directly ahead,
but I didn't know exactly where. Then, suddenly, my head-
lamp froze in place just three feet ahead of the train. It
was a switch, wide open. There wasn't enough time to
close it, so I jumped off the train, pushed desperately
against the mine wall beside a shoring post, and waited
for the crash. When the coal train hit the open switch, it
tumbled off the tracks and piled up in a mass of cars and
spilt coal. One of the cars fell right across the shoring pro-
tecting me, coming to rest only inches from my chest. If it
had fallen just a little in the other direction, the point of
the car would have pierced my chest.
These crashes became a regular part of my job. Once,
a car split a shoring and brought down a portion of the
ceiling. I was bruised badly by the falling stones.
The mine was poorly maintained. One day, after throw-
ing a switch, I noticed that the steel "feather" that connects
the two otherwise disconnected rails hadn't closed prop-
erly. I rushed out from my alcove refuge and held the
feather with my hand until the front wheels caught. It was
a risky move. I pulled my hand back quickly. In another
instant my fingers would have been crushed by the wheel.
As the back wheel approached the faulty switch, I held
the feather again until the wheels caught, but when I
pulled back this time, my mitten was caught in the switch!
I yanked my hand out of the glove just as the wheel rolled
I repeated this little game of split-second timing sixty
times, for all thirty cars. There was no alternative. If I
missed once, the train would have jumped the tracks and
crushed me to death. I got a strange reception when I
asked my brigadier to report the faulty switch to the de-
"Leave well enough alone, Amerikanitz," he said. "I'll
tell him what you said, and you'll end up digging coal like
an animal, on your hands and knees. Do what you can
with the switch. The officials don't want to hear about
My switchman's version of Russian roulette started to
disturb me greatly after a while. I longed to get out of the
mine. It was in February 1953 that my new department
manager, Chumboritsa, a Communist Party member from
Georgia, made the dream come true. I had spoken to him
once or twice about America, and he remembered me.
"Amerikanitz, how would you like to work upstairs for
a change?" Chumboritsa asked one day. "There's an
opening in the officials' washroom."
It was the nicest question anyone had asked me in
seven years. I started working in the washroom the next
day as an attendant. It was a new world.
I WORKED TWENTY-
four hours on and twenty-four off — my first chance for
real rest in years. I slept through my days off for the first
month or so, and gradually the constant fatigue of the
Vorkuta sleeping sickness began to leave me. The wash-
room was the cleanest and warmest room in the mine. I
had a place to wash and dry out my clothes, and soon I
became a sartorial wonder for a slave laborer. The wash-
room was next to the mine office, and the young Commu-
nist executives would change their good clothes in the
washroom and leave them with me. On the night shift,
they would often come in just to keep warm.
For me it was a university education in Soviet life. There
are three kinds of "free people" in Vorkuta; they are the
Red executives, actually civilian employees of the MVD,
who have been assigned there; workers from all the Soviet
Union, who have come to Vorkuta for the "long ruble/'
•the Arctic bonus pay; and former slaves who have com-
pleted their sentence and are now in lifelong exile.
There were fifty "free people" in Mine 16 — forty work-
ers and ten Communist executives: the chief engineer, his
assistants, department managers, and chief mechanics.
I washed out their shirts, gave them towels and soap
for their showers or bath, and generally made myself use-
ful. They were genuinely intrigued at my being an Amer-
ican, but at first they tried hard to keep our relationship
stiff and formal; I was only slave l-E-241. But the temp-
tation to discuss America was too much for them, and in
a few months we were all good friends — sitting in the wash-
room talking through much of the cold nights. Often,
when they bought some delicacy — like a piece of real
cheese — they would bring the leftovers to me. It was all
The average free worker, other than an executive, I
found, is completely dissatisfied not only with Vorkuta
but with the Soviet Union. The ones I met weren't politi-
cally sophisticated enough to discuss communism or capi-
talism, but they knew concretely that they just didn't make
enough money. They lived in one of the four villages or
thirty posiyoloks, dreary little settlements with a store and
a row of one-story barracks-like buildings in the shadow of
the coal mines. Each family had one room and shared a
"I make eight hundred rubles a month," one of the
mechanics told me. "I have figured it takes at least 1500
rubles for two to live at all. My wife works in Vorkuta too,
for 600 rubles, but it's still not enough." Another free
worker only made 450 rubles in our mine. The "long ruble"
these people were seeking at Vorkuta was long, but not long
enough to reach from payday to payday. Yet, had they been
working in any other area — excepting a few capital cities
and propaganda mines — their ruble would have been exactly
half as long as it was here in Vorkuta.
For the average "free worker" in Vorkuta, clothes were
prohibitively priced. The ruble is worth twenty-five cents
at the official rate, but it is actually about one fourth that
in purchasing power.
From my Communist washroom companions, I learned
that the situation is much the same all over the Soviet
Union. Except for executives, Stakhanovites (high
"norm"), and highly skilled workers, it is a nation oi
families living in one-room apartments, existing on sub-
standard salaries. The Kremlin for several decades has
been siphoning off the profits of Socialist industry for
heavy industrial expansion and armament production.
The singular exceptions are the large cities like Lenin-
grad and Moscow, where workers get as high as double
pay, although they too live one family to a room. Red
leaders vividly remember that their own revolution started
in the large industrial cities. They have no intention of
having history so painfully repeat itself.
There is a tremendous disparity of pay in the worker's
paradise. The director of our mine group, Bulbenkov, was
paid 35,000 rubles a month — 500 times more than the
average worker. He and his wife paraded in heavy fur
coats and caps and drove a horse and buggy, a great
luxury in Vorkuta. Bulbenkov called himself a "true Com-
My greatest washroom pleasure was arguing with the
young department managers, all graduates of Soviet tech-
nical schools, members of the Komsomol (Young Com-
munist League), and now members of the Party itself.
They are the elite of the Soviet.
Like all Russians, they have heard strong rumors about
prosperity in America, but are completely confused after
reading their government's propaganda about Wall Street
and the starving workers. As the ice between us broke,
they felt me out carefully.
"Amerikanitz, tell me about how rich your American
workers are," one of the young department managers
asked me, laughing, but with little enthusiasm.
Each time I described economic conditions in America,
I could see their eyes open like those of awed school chil-
dren. My comments verified the rumors they themselves
had heard from Russians who had contact with the West,
mostly in Germany after World War II. Their curiosity
was insatiable. "How much do shoes cost? Can a poor boy
go to college? Do workers actually drive cars? Do you
have television in the United States?"
"Well, you may have prosperity there, but it's only a
bubble that will burst," one of the seven department man-
agers told me half-heartedly. "When we get prosperity in
the Soviet it will be forever. It may not be for five genera-
tions, but then it will be permanent. Perhaps it is not so
good here, but budit, budit, it will be, it will be."
Budit is a key Russian word. Actually, those who
haven't already become cynics waiting for the Communist
Utopia to arrive try to hypnotize themselves. When I
asked: "What about life in Russia, meanwhile?", they
shrugged. "That is true. It is sometimes very hard for
These seven young men typify Russia's future. They
have the most to gain from communism, but I would say
that at least three of them (at the age of 23 to 25) are
already cynics. Their pay is presumably excellent, about
3,500-4,500 rubles per month, about equal in purchasing
power to that of an' average American worker. But they
too were dissatisfied. One third of their pay went for in-
come taxes, and one of them told me their compulsory
social contributions — for Party dues, youth fees, and other
purposes — equaled 800 rubles per month! Room and
laundry were cheap, about 50 rubles a month, but after
food, clothing, and vodka (at 50 rubles a bottle) they had
One of the young men, Shuisky, a native of the Komi
Republic, was a prominent Communist, a member of the
Town Senate of Vorkuta. One day he came running into
the washroom to tell me he was getting married. "Now
my wife and I will have a room for ourselves," he boasted.
"It will be much better than living the way I am now,
with two other men in one room." His "furniture" was
being made from rough lumber by a few of the slave work-
ers as an extra job.
The Communists openly admitted to me that there is
little freedom in the Soviet. The freedom they missed most,
personally, was the opportunity to quit a job and take an-
other. They hated their assignment in Vorkuta and looked
longingly at photos of Moscow and sunny southern Russia
in Soviet Union and other magazines. Some of them half-
heartedly defended the lack of freedom. "Our government
has a job to do. It could not control the people if they had
Except for one man, they were far from being Communist
fanatics. The Party was strictly a means to a career for
them. Few had any idealistic concern with communism.
"Of the four and a half million Party members," one esti-
mated, "I would say only five hundred thousand have any
interest in world revolution."
While I was in that washroom, I played heavily on their
doubts about life in the Soviet — doubts that were also
strengthened by foreign radio broadcasts. The average
Russian three-tube set that is openly for sale doesn't have
enough range to reach the Voice of America, BBC, Radio
Free Europe, or the West German stations. But the de-
partment managers, as trusted personnel, could and did
buy short-wave radios. There is no Soviet law against lis-
tening to such programs as far as I know. A number of
them confided to me that they often tuned in the West. I
would say it is fairly effective despite its limited audience.
One thing they still wouldn't believe, no matter how much
I talked, was that the average American worker had his
They have heard a lot about racial discrimination. When
non-Communist Russians eagerly asked about America,
almost always they asked, "How about the Negroes?"
They read daily of lynchings and murders of colored peo-
ple in the United States, and they believed, as a conse-
quence, that the Negroes' lot was as bad as that of the
prisoners in Russia. There is a deep reason behind the
question. They know that the only help in destroying
communism they ever can expect is American help. When
communism is overthrown, the United States will have
some say in Russian affairs, and these men fear that they
will be treated as they believe the Negroes are treated in
The people of the Soviet know that the government
plays loose with the truth. Coal production in Mine 16
was 600 tons a day. Yet our published norm, which we
always fulfilled on paper, was 1000 tons. Lying about
production figures (in every phase of Soviet economy)
goes all the way up the Soviet scale, and nobody takes
them seriously. One day one of the free workers came
running in with a copy of the Kutchigarka (the Stoker),
the local Vorkuta newspaper. "Comrades, look how good
we are," he said, laughing. "They say Mine 16 has hit a
record production of 2500 tons!"
Actually it never went higher than 900. One of the de-
partment managers sat down in the washroom with me
one evening and thumbed through a copy of Pravda. He
pointed out article after article, "That's not true. That's a
lie. That's not true either."
was not only an intellectual delight and a place to keep
warm. It was a bathing place for the wives of the Red of-
ficials; none of them had showers or baths in their homes.
They came in once a week. Most of them were young, and
a few of them quite goodlooking. I gave them soap and a
towel while they undressed right in the foyer of the wash-
room in front of me. Soviet women are not modest. They
took off their dresses, slips, and ankle socks worn over rayon
stockings (black cotton in the winter), and stood around
talking to me in their brassieres and panties. Then, in the
privacy of their bath they undressed completely. Russian
women are exceedingly buxom. As they get older and
heavier their heft is no particular adornment, but some of
the young girls are attractive.
The days the women came in to bathe, the washroom
was crowded with free workers and executives who had
flocked in on the pretext of having to speak with me. They
stood around, watching the women disrobe and passing
vulgar wisecracks. "Oh, that one is real nice," an engineer
said about one of the partially nude bathers. The young
lady wisecracked back just as glibly.
The slave laborers working on the mine surface stared
at the women entering the bathhouse as if they were visi-
tors from another planet. Two men climbed into the attic
of the washroom and drilled holes in the ceiling directly
over the bath the women used. They spent two months in
the bor for their week of short-lived pleasure.
Life in the washroom was better than any I had known
in Vorkuta. In fact, conditions improved for everyone a
little. In 1952, the MVD decided on a bold plan. They
started to pay the slaves a small salary. Starvation, low
morale, and self-disablement had hurt coal production
badly and the Kremlin hoped a few rubles' incentive might
My pay in the washroom was approximately 410 rubles
a month, out of which the camp took almost 300 rubles
for my "room and board," and another fee for the camp
administration. I was paying for my own imprisonment! Of
the remaining 110 rubles, I paid 22 a month in "with-
holding" income taxes to the Soviet government. The rest,
about 88 rubles, was mine to spend. This was $22 at the
official rate but, in purchasing power, much closer to $6.
Workers down in the mine who oversubscribed their
"norms" sometimes earned 130 or 150 rubles, but they
were allowed to draw only 100 of it, less taxes. Those who
didn't fulfill their "norms" were paid nothing and were put
on killing punishment rations besides.
The extra few rubles gave our slave camp some super-
ficial aspects of civilization. In the camp canteen we
bought tea, margarine, sugar, and marmalade for snacks
after the slightly reduced evening meal. On free days we
could go to the "restaurant" to buy extra cabbage soup,
kasha, or fish. But the extra money didn't go very far.
Many men used much of their salary for prostitution,
others for pure alcohol (at 130 rubles a pint!) which, when
fixed with tea, was a powerful antidote for Vorkuta mo-
notony. I drank this polar moonshine only once. Seeing
embittered slave laborers a little tipsy and cutting up like
teen-agers was strange enough. On my twenty-eighth birth-
day the Hungarian doctor bought a pint of alcohol for
the occasion. I contributed a can of sliced Mexican pine-
apple which had cost me the equivalent of $4.00, and we
had a festive time.
Even the gornyaki, the most dull-witted coal miners,
who used to crouch in their two-and-one-half-foot-higb
tunnels, seemed to come out of their living death a little.
The Soviet incentive plan worked, in that Vorkuta coal
production rose 20 percent. But it backfired dramatically
in another, more vital way. As half-starved animals we
had no strength or courage to protest. With fuller bellies
we looked objectively at our plight for the first time. We
were fed up with the inhuman working and living condi-
tions, the impossible cold, the persecution by the blatnois,
the MVD stukachey, the long winter nights, the monotony,
and mostly the hopelessness.
MANY OF THE
free people and the guard component were as fed up with
Arctic isolation as were the prisoners. There was bitter
conflict between the "red boards," the Red army men, who
were responsible for guarding the area outside the barbed
wire, and the "blue boards," the MVD who handled camp
policing and administration.
"The MVD get six times our pay, and many of them
live in town with their wives," a Red army soldier once
told me. "They have dancing, movies, vodka and women.
We live here in barracks not much better than yours. This
winter, ten boys standing guard on the tundra have com-
mitted suicide already."
The Red army looked on the MVD as glorified police-
men and jailers, and the hostility often broke out into fist
fights. Basically, the army enlisted men were sympathetic
with the slaves.
Our own discontent was unorganized. We had groups
formed strictly along national lines, but they were not
united. The Baltic peoples had the strongest organiza-
tions (only a compatriot could share their bacon) and
the Russians the weakest. The MVD found it difficult to
plant informers among the Baits, but they had a few
Russian stukachey still loyal to the Kremlin ("The re-
gime has made a mistake in my case," they said) who
heavily infiltrated the Russian groups.
There was no central slave-laborer organization to co-
ordinate such a mad dream as a rebellion. Each camp
was separated from the other by a twelve-foot fence and a
hundred yards of tundra. Our only contact was through
transferred prisoners, whom we always interrogated thor-
oughly for news outside our mine group. There was ob-
viously no communications system for a full-scale uprising
against General Derevyenko and the Kremlin.
There were isolated bits of sabotage. In Mine 7 a few
spirited ex-Communist Soviet students stole dynamite
sticks from the coal-blasting department, a few at a time.
When they had stolen enough they blew up their power
station and blasted one of the mine shafts. Then, from a
prisoner transferred from Camp 2, I heard how 2000 men
had organized to clean out the blatnois.
"We were almost rid of the tattooed monkeys," this
slave told me. "Little by little the murderers in our camp
were released or sent to Novaya Zemlya, and we had some
peace. Then, one day, over a hundred more were brought
in, and split up about five to a barracks. The MVD lieu-
tenant said there was no separate barracks for them. The
first day, one of the blatnois in my barracks put his open
shapka (cap) down on a stool and said: T want it full of
rubles when I return in an hour.' Many were afraid, and it
was full when he came back. Then the next day the same,
and again the next. Soon it was getting too much even for
the cowards among us.
"We developed a plan. Those in the mine stole copper
wire there and the electricians made bells from home-
made parts. We connected the barracks with an alarm
system. Then, one night, about three a.m., it rang
throughout Camp 2. At the same instant, every barracks
overpowered its handful of blatnois and took away their
knives and hatchets. We emptied one of our barracks and
locked all the blatnois in. We poured stolen gasoline over
it and lit a fire. If it were not for the guards who put out
the flame and freed the blatnois they would all have
burned for their crimes. But we were rid of them anyway.
They were all shipped out the next day."
But rebelling against the blatnois and rebelling against
the Soviet government were obviously jobs of different
dimensions. The Vorkuta intelligentsia sat around dream-
ing of a rebellion or a mass strike against the Kremlin
but the average Russian just couldn't understand such a
"They are mad dreamers," one moujik (peasant) who
had fought Soviet collectivization in the 'thirties told me.
"I have lived under the Communists for thirty-five years
and I have never seen anyone oppose them and win. What
have we to rebel with? Our bare hands?"
The moujik made sense. Yet, within a few months' time
three closely related incidents were to set the stage for a
dramatic, violent uprising of 100,000 slaves of Vorkuta
— the first rebellion against the Soviet monolith in thirty-
five years and one of the most significant political events
of modern times.
Stalin, not Derevyenko, Beria, or even the cold, was
our mortal enemy. Each of us felt personally imprisoned
by the "Moustache," or the "Old One," as he was often
called. We painstakingly studied his most recent pictures
in Pravda. One slave hopefully commented: "He doesn't
look too well to me. See his eyes — how old and tired they
Then, the first days of March, came the news we had
waited so long to hear. Stalin had been stricken with an
apoplectic fit. "May the devil take his soul today!" the
prisoners prayed, on their knees. The morning of March
6, 1953, his death was announced over the loudspeaker
in Mine 16.
I stood among a mixed crowd of soot-covered slave la-
borers, free workers, and Red officials and watched their
expressions. My fellow slaves lit up with hope. "He lived
too long — the old dog," one prisoner yelled. An old man
got down on his knees in the water. "Thank God, some-
one still looks out for the wretched." The faces of the free
people were immobile. No one uttered a word of praise
for the dead dictator.
The next day, the cautious administration had Stalin's
portrait removed from the front of the coal locomotive
and replaced it with Lenin's picture. "Who knows?" one
of the department managers commented to me in the
washroom. "In a few months' time maybe the old one will
be called a traitor."
Stalin's death sent a wave of frenzied expectation
throughout Vorkuta. "Maybe Uncle Zhorka [Malenkov,
the new premier] will close all the slave camps and free
us all?" Vaska asked me one day. "What do you think,
I wasn't quite that optimistic, but for the first time in
its history, Vorkuta awaited each new day hopefully. The
first months of Malenkov's regime, however, were sur-
prisingly uneventful. The release of the Jewish doctors
whom Stalin had falsely accused of plotting murder was one
On April 14, Beria's birthday, we heard rumors of a
general amnesty. "Don't believe it, Johnny," one of the
old-timers in my barracks said. "It's only more parasha"
(latrine rumors). Later that day, an amnesty was de-
clared by Beria for all prisoners serving five-year sentences
or less. But it was only a shallow bid for national popular-
ity that hardly affected a single political prisoner. In all,
5000 men were released from Vorkuta, mostly blatnois
and workers arrested for chronic absenteeism. Eight hun-
dred of the released blatnois were soon back in camp
after they had started a murderous wave of robberies and
knife stabbings in town, killing 1200.
The free workers spoke almost lovingly about the new
premier. In a short time, the amount of consumer gooas
— shoes, shirts, suits, bicycles, clocks — in the stores of
Vorkuta and the posiyoloks had almost doubled. Prices
too had dropped.
But in Camp 3, Mine 16, slave life went on unchanged.
We waited for some word, some sign from Malenkov or
Beria rejecting the slave brutality of Stalin. But it never
April and May, bitter, disappointing months, passed
without change. Vorkuta rumbled badly and the sabotage
became more frequent. We were ready for trouble of some
kind. We needed only a spark to set it off.
This came in June — two events, hard on the heels of
each other. Early in the month, over Radio Moscow, we
heard of the arrest of our jailer, MVD chief L. P. Beria,
for "treason." (He was executed on September 23, 1953.)
The news of Beria's arrest shocked the local MVD ad-
ministration. Every "Blue" from Derevyenko down to
lowly nadsiratel (guard) expected to follow Beria into
Lubianka or perhaps become one of us for participation
in Beria's plot — whatever that may have been. A few of
the guards nervously asked us: "What do you think will
It wasn't clearly defined until later, but the MVD de-
tachment in Camp 3, as well as throughout all the
U.S.S.R., became openly split. In private conversation,
some admitted loyalty to Beria, others to Premier Malen-
kov. Beria's arrest became a powerful catalyst, and the
ground swell of tension rose to the surface. Slaves began
insulting the administration and the MVD informers more
openly. "We're cowards," one Estonian in my barracks
said one day. "The Kremlin can't control itself, but a half
million of us in Vorkuta jump when they sneeze."
On June 18 we heard even more startling news. My
friend Ivan came rushing over to my shelf. "Johnny, it's
in Pravda. The East Germans have rebelled. Come look
for yourself." I joined a group crowded around a copy of
Pravda pasted on the wall. Someone was reading the
story out loud. Pravda naturally blamed the East German'
riots on American subversion, but the story of strike
against higher norms and the open fighting in the streets
of Berlin was surprisingly candid. Every time the article
mentioned the Berliners' resistance, we cheered. Their
spirit inspired us and we discussed nothing else for days
after. (Months later, some 200 heroes of that day, East
Berlin boys from sixteen to twenty-two, arrived in Vor-
kuta to start five- to twenty-year terms as slave laborers.)
The next month we were cocky slaves. The long sum-
mer sun had melted the snow, and its warmth was renew-
ing our energy and courage. We discussed the chance of
striking for our freedom, but no one seemed to know what
to do. Many men, especially the Russians who were deathly
afraid of informers, were unable to make a decision.
Fortunately it was made for us. The morning of July 21,
when I reported to the washroom, one of the department
managers spoke to me.
"It's finally come, Amerikanitz. Mines 17 and 18 are on
strike. Derevyenko himself went into the barracks and
asked them to go back to work. They just laughed.
"But don't think it will do Camp 3 any good," he
goaded me. "Everyone has to fight for his own freedom."
At 5:00 a.m. that morning, the workers of Mine 17 had
fallen out for rasvod, the morning roll call, with secret
instructions from an elected leader not to report to work.
They demanded to be taken back to the barracks instead
of to the mine. "When the barbed wire comes down," one
of them told the guard, "we'll mine coal again. Not until."
The guards tried to be firm, but without specific instruc-
tions from Derevyenko to shoot, they knew there was
nothing they could do.
REPORTS OF THE
strike in Mine 17 soon traveled throughout our Mine 16.
All during the day, rumors kept coming in through the
free workers. The strike had spread to Mines 9, 10, and
25. There was more talk than work that day. "Amer-
ikanitz, do you think it's true or is it just more parasha?"
one of the men asked me that night. I knew it was true.
"Shuisky told me in the washroom," I said. "He's a good
Communist and they want to prove that they're well in-
The next day, July 22, the skeptics were convinced.
Mine 7 in the camp next to us had joined the strike. The
wheels in their mine elevator were not turning. For a while
full coal cars came through (the rail line went through
our mine). But later that day, the Mine 7 coal cars were
three-fourths empty, and emblazoned in chalk across the
inside of each car in big bold Russian letters was written:
"TO HELL WITH YOUR COAL. WE WANT FREE-
DOM." There were hand-written leaflets pasted all over
the cars, addressed to us. "Comrades from Mines 12, 14,
and 16. Don't let us down. You know we are striking."
Immediately we formed our own strike committee. Our
strike leader was Gureyvich, the Russian Jew and former
Soviet diplomat. His committee was made up mostly of
Russian intellectuals, some still Marxist, but all violently
anti-Soviet. One of them, a Russian German, once had a
trading post in the Volga. Although he had been pro-
Stalin in attitude, he was summarily imprisoned during
World War II along with thousands of Russians of Ger-
That night a few members of the committee came to
see me in my barracks. "We haven't decided when to go
out with the others, Amerikanitz," Gureyvich confided,
"but when we do, you will have one of the most important
jobs. It will be your responsibility to convince the Red
department managers not to interfere. They respect you
as an American — no one has forgotten all the equipment
and food your country sent over during the war."
I had a chance to put the plan into effect the very next
morning. The second week in July, fifty prison boxcars
filled with slaves, guarded by a tender car bristling with
machine guns, had arrived in Vorkuta. The prisoners were
from the Karaganda slave camp in Kazakhstan Republic
in southeastern U.S.S.R. They were being sent north be-
cause of the acute labor shortage in Vorkuta. Some 20
percent of all our slaves were now cripples. As an induce-
ment the Karagandas had been promised higher wages
and resettlement in Vorkuta as free exiles, with excellent
But the government had lied. The Karagandas were
split up among the Vorkuta camps and settled as regular
prisoners. About two hundred were brought into our
Camp 3. That morning, July 24, the Karagandas in our
camp, aware of strikes going on elsewhere, refused to
work unless the government promises were carried out.
One of the promises was that they would be issued
mining clothes, which slaves did not have. When the
Karagandas refused to work in their regular clothes, the
brigadiers went to the storeroom with them, to see what
they could find. No order was passed on for the Kara-
gandas to receive the clothing, and so they stood about,
Meanwhile, the workers down in the mine were await-
ing instructions concerning their work. The free engineers
and supervisors, who wanted to line things up so that pro-
duction could start rolling, had to change into overalls
before going down into the mines. To change, they had
to come to my department, which meant that my role in
helping to start the strike was about to begin.
The first department manager to come in was, luckily,
one of the friendliest. He looked around, spotted me, and
patted me on the back, saying, "At last you fellows have
courage enough to put up some resistance. I'd better go
home; I need sleep."
"Wait," I begged him. "Try to take your twin along
with you." The "twin" was an exceedingly hard-boiled
Communist. Both men were abnormally short, hence the
nickname. I had hardly spoken when the other "twin"
hurried in, ready to rush into the mine and get things
"Are you crazy?" his companion said. "The slaves
will kill you. You'll be lucky if they shut you up for a day
or so in the elevator. Why don't you come along with me?
I've got a bottle at home, and when we reach the bot-
tom we won't know who's who, anyhow!"
They both laughed and went out together. More en-
gineers came in, one after another, some cursing, some
grinning. I reached for their overcoats and had these on
their backs before they knew what was happening. I
opened the door, bade them a very pleasant weekend, and
ushered them out. Without a word, but with a nod or a
wink, they left for home. None left with his overalls, none
went to the mine.
Only the boss, the executive engineer, was still unac-
counted for, but not for long. "Where are all my engi-
neers?" I heard him shout. He had poked his head in the
"Why, they've all left," I said. "The mine is at a stand-
still, and they have nothing to do."
"Now what?" was all he had to say. Holding his over-
coat for him, I suggested that he call off the second shift
and send the first shift home. They were only costing him
money, I said, and there was no production anyway. He
left with a curse, called off the second shift, and never
came back till the storm was over.
I fell back on the dressing bench in relief. "Thank God
they're gone," I said to myself. My job was done. It wasn't
much of a job, really, but it helped.
I left with the rest of the first shift. Back in the camp,
everyone wanted to know how it had started.
Meanwhile, posters with strikers' demands were being
put up throughout the camp. The strike date was set for
July 25. But it was only the twenty-fourth, and the strike
was already underway.
Our strike slogan was "Not an ounce of coal for the
plan." A list of demands was drawn up: 1. Removal of
the barbed wire. 2. Barracks to be kept unlocked at night.
3. Release for all charged with violations in connection
with the war. 4. Release of all political prisoners who had
served ten years or more in Russian prisons. (I had served
nine!) 5. Thorough check of the trial of all political prison-
ers. Release of the innocent. For the rest, setting of new
lower sentences in accordance with international law.
"I think we have valuable allies," one member of the
strike committee confided to me. I soon saw what he
meant. I spotted one of the MVD guards coming out of
our outhouse. I walked in after he left, and pasted high on
the wall was a printed strike leaflet that hadn't been there
a minute before. We have excellent allies, indeed, I
thought. Some of Beria's loyal underlings had obviously
helped to start our revolt or were using it to their own ad-
vantage to foment discontent against the Malenkov
Meanwhile thirty of the Karagandas who had refused
to work that morning were arrested by Tchevchenko.
Immediately Gureyvich, the strike committee, and some
2000 other prisoners stormed down toward the prison. We
stood before the gate, called out strike slogans, and yelled:
"Free the Karagandas!" Major Tchevchenko, with his
perennially sickly appearance, came out and tried to calm us.
"There is no cause for trouble, men. I promise that the
Karagandas will be released before six o'clock tonight."
It was then 3:15 p.m. We decided to wait and see.
But a few minutes later, several chornie vorons (police
wagons; literally, "black ravens,") drove up with several
police cars and four truckloads of troops. They had ob-
viously come to take the Karagandas off Tchevchenko's
hands and bring them to the central prison. About one
hundred Red army and MVD troops commanded by our
harsh MVD lieutenant of restriction, who had been in
Vorkuta only two weeks, piled out of the trucks and sur-
rounded the camp gates.
We cursed violently and almost in unison, and shoul-
der to shoulder rushed to bar the troops' way into the
camp. We were successful. They had to retreat. A "stool
pigeon" showed up among us and tried to persuade us to
let the troops in to take the men. He had hardly begun
talking when a mob rushed him. He was taken off to the
hospital. The MVD men tried a new plan to lay hold of
the thirty Karagandas. Since the bor was off limits, it was
possible for the MVD to cut through the fence and reach
the bor from the rear. As soon as we saw what was going
on, a new wave of protest shattered the air.
Suddenly, the thirty Karaganda prisoners, who had
overcome their three drunken guards, dashed out of the
prison into the yard. We set up a tremendous yell of jubila-
tion. A second later, the MVD lieutenant ordered: "Open
I was pinned against the administration building fifty
yards from the troops, caught in a crossfire of sub-
machine-gun and rifle bullets. I pressed flat against the
wall and mumbled a prayer. From where I stood I could
see that all fifty Red army men and a few of the MVD had
disobeyed the lieutenant and were not firing. Next to the
lieutenant a Red army soldier had his submachine barrel
pointed stubbornly down to the ground. The MVD lieu-
tenant put away his own pistol, impatiently grabbed the
soldier's weapon and started firing.
The firing lasted only twenty seconds, but it seemed
like eternity. When it was over, fifteen of our men lay
wounded on the ground. Two were dead, and others were
taken away to die. One of the two dead men, due to be
released in only two months, had the top of his head
blown off just in front of me by an explosive bullet fired
by Molkov, the hated guard. A stray bullet went through
the hospital window and punctured the lung of a patient
in bed. I turned to look at the wall behind me. Two feet
over my head, a submachine gun had cut a twisted pattern
of bullet holes in the wall of the building.
We were enraged. After looking at the dead and
wounded, Gureyvich signaled to some of the committee,
and together they walked to the front gate. Staring into
the muzzles of a hundred guns, Gureyvich addressed
Tchevchenko, Buikoff, the lieutenant, and all the guards
in a sharp commanding voice.
"The strike committee is officially relieving you of com-
mand of Camp 3 and Mines 12, 14, and 16," he said.
"From this moment on, we prisoners will be in complete
charge. No officers or guards will be allowed within the
gate without permission of the strike committee. If the
lieutenant or Molkov attempts to enter, he will be killed
without a hearing. If you want to stop us, you will have
to shoot all forty-five hundred prisoners now. Meanwhile
not an ounce of coal comes out of the pits for Leningrad."
We cheered our hearts out.
It worked. No one fired, no one raised a defiant hand
to stop us. Only the young woman feldshar was allowed
in to care for the wounded. Within a few minutes, we had
rounded up three MVD guards and a senior lieutenant
still lurking in the camp area, and unceremoniously
kicked them out the front gate. With a touch of courage,
our coal strike had been transformed into an uprising.
The great Vorkuta Slave Rebellion of 1953 had begun.
We immediately formed what was, for all practical pur-
poses, an independent slave republic. A member of the
strike committee was put in charge of each barracks. A
young Russian graduate of a Soviet technical school was
put in command of mine. All the food in the stolovaya,
the canteen, and the restaurant was commandeered, and
new higher rations were set for all. The prisoners in the
bor were released. We appointed our own police, but it
was hardly necessary. Perfect discipline was maintained.
The separate national groups became welded into one.
The morale of the men, exhilarated by the fresh breath of
freedom, was fantastically high. We would gladly have all
died together to keep it.
Not one of our 4500 men worked the mines, including
the brigadiers and desetnicks. A few free workers were
permitted to man the pits — to work the ventilators and
keep the hallways clear of coal gas, and to pump excess
water out— but not one lump of coal was allowed to be
During the entire melee, the once-fierce blatnois sulked
in their barracks like spanked youngsters. They were
completely unable to decipher what strange force had
turned their world upside down and robbed them of their
Seven known informers were dragged from their bar-
racks and brought down to the front gate. We threw them
to the MVD outside. "Here are your stukachey" Gureyvich
told Captain Buikoff. "We can't guarantee their lives in
Not long after the shooting, we made our own flag, a
plain Red banner (the hammer and sickle is the Com-
munist Party flag) bordered in black cloth in memory of
our two murdered comrades. We raised it at half-mast on
a tall pole over the stolovaya. Fifteen minutes later, from
the electric power station across the hill, another red-and-
black flag, an exact duplicate of ours, rose — magically,
it seemed — up a pole into the sun. A few minutes later, it
happened at Mine 7. Then, one at a time, as far as the
eye could see across the tundra, the new red-and-black
banner of slaves-made-free replaced the Soviet flag over
much of Vorkuta.
We kept in contact with the other camps through the
sympathetic free workers. In this way the strike demands
of each camp were almost exactly tide same. We unani-
mously agreed to deal only with a representative of the
Politburo in Moscow or with a member of the Central
Communist Party Committee.
We learned that the pattern of strike followed by an
insurrection had taken place in most of the camps. They
too had driven the MVD out the gate and assumed com-
plete control of everything within the barbed wires. In
Mine 40, the largest and most modern in Vorkuta, there
had also been MVD violence. A few men were shot defy-
ing the order to go to work. From our sources, we knew
that the electric power station, the railroad camp, and
some thirty-five coal camps had joined the uprising. Be-
tween 85,000 and 100,000 slaves were on strike.
The Kremlin was paralyzed in its own internal power
struggle and afraid to issue definite orders on how to han-
dle the slave rebellion — other than with "extreme caution."
We knew that Malenkov's nervous, unstable new regime
needed the coal badly and could not afford to have the
The MVD ranks in Vorkuta were split. Some officers
and men (who they were — perhaps Tchevchenko himself
— were known only to the strike leaders) were helping
us by adding to the official paralysis. Their hope was that
the rebellion would spread throughout the slave empire
and act as a lever to unseat Malenkov, free Beria, or at
least protect his appointees from extinction.
We heard that similar uprisings were taking place
through the 20,000,000-slave GULAG slave region.
Eighty-one Japanese slave laborers from Karaganda who
have recently returned home corroborated this. Two
hundred slaves in their camp had been cut down by tanks
and machine guns in a small but similar uprising that
summer. Free people later brought us news that our up-
rising sparked strikes everywhere: in the Ural ore mines,
in the coal mines outside Moscow, on the enormous col-
lective farms of the Ukraine.
Later in the afternoon of the first day of the strike, three
hundred soldiers were deployed around our camp in newly
dug trenches. I could see machine guns and mortars being
put in place.
At 6:30 p.m. Captain Buikoff requested permission to
enter the camp. He came through the gates unarmed and
unescorted and read a statement from General Derev-
"As of yesterday, July 23, 1953," Buikoff began (the
veins in his thick neck stood out in embarrassment), "all
prisoners will receive up to three hundred rubles a month
compensation. The bars are to be removed from the win-
dows of the barracks, the barracks will no longer be locked
in the evening, evening roll call will be eliminated. With
the permission of the commanding officer, prisoners may
receive visitors from home once a year."
The men listened, smiles spread across their faces, as
Buikoff continued his list of official concessions. The slave
numbers were no longer required on our clothing; an at-
tempt would be made to provide better housing, food, and
clothing. Soviet citizens could mail letters once a month
instead of twice a year. (I still couldn't write a postcard.)
From what he said, the same concessions were being
•made to all the striking camps. Buikoff finished the
Statement without one word about our returning to work,
then turned on his heel and walked out.
Up to triple pay! No more bars! We cheered lustily. The
rebellion was only a few hours old, and the nervous ad-
ministration had already granted us important conces-
sions. We rushed to the barracks, shouting and yelling,
and ripped the bars from the windows with our bare
"Come, Amerikanitz, give me a hand," one of the
Ukrainians called. He was pulling the hinges off the door
that held the heavy iron crossbar lock in place. Some
were joyfully tearing the slave numbers off their clothes.
Others, however, said, "No, I will keep my number on
until this number doesn't exist any more." On paper the
number existed as before, even if it was ripped off the
clothing. My number, l-E-241, was reserved for me
whether I wore it or not. Later, punishment was threat-
ened for all who did not want to take it off. But many men
felt lost without a number on their clothes. Their stupid,
dead life had become a formula and they had forgotten
how to think. They took the wrong clothing by mistake
— and it really didn't matter: clothes were all alike, any-
how, and no one had the right size to begin with.
The next three days, July 25, 26, and 27, were pure
bliss. Nature had joined forces with us and granted us
cloudless sunny days. The temperature hit 70 degrees. All
over Camp 3, men basked on the tundra soaking up the
sun and discussing the amazing chain of events. I sat
with friends by the fence, and we congratulated ourselves
on our luck thus far. A Red army soldier patrolling in
front of us stopped and asked through the gate: "What's
going on? Have you gained anything?" We told him about
Derevyenko's concessions and our good life these last
three days. "Good," he answered. "We're on your side. I
don't care if you strike until doomsday. No Red army
men will ever fire on you."
Actually we were biding time, waiting for a Kremlin
representative, the only one who could agree to a reduc-
tion of sentences. But Moscow had kept perfect silence.
On July 27, Derevyenko himself, a short, stocky man
of fifty with a gray-haired crew cut, came to speak with
us, accompanied by Dochtin, the Minister of Internal
Affairs for the Komi Republic. They too were unarmed
and unescorted, although, of course, there were 300 troops
with mortars and machine guns directly outside the fence.
They continued the kid-glove treatment that had thus
far characterized the official attitude. Derevyenko walked
from one group to another, talking in a fatherly, solicitous
manner. "Don't you think it would be best to go back to
work in the mines?" he asked me and the others. "You
have won most of your demands. What more do you
"We are waiting for the Kremlin," a member of the
strike committee told him. Just before he left the camp,
Derevyenko announced that MVD General Masslenni-
kov, holder of the Order of Lenin and Deputy Minister of
Internal Affairs for the entire Soviet Union, was flying up
from Moscow to talk with us.
Masslennikov's visit, one of the free workers told us,
was the result of six days' frantic pleading by Derevyenko
for Moscow to take a firm stand.
The news was heralded as another strike victory, but I
believe many of us, deep in our hearts, were worried. Mass-
lennikov had a reputation for both shrewdness and cruelty.
The next day, the twenty-eighth, another beautiful day,
we buried our two dead. Fifty free women from the posi-
yolok a half mile away were waiting at the gate to throw
flowers on the funeral truck. I thought it was a fine symbol
of sympathy with our stand. The burial was on the open
football field, where four and a half thousand of us,
wearing black mourning ribbons cut from what once was
our slave numbers, filed by to pay our respects.
ON THE TWENTY-
ninth, at noon, Ivan ran into my barracks. "Get up,
Johnny! The Moscow general, Masslennikov! He's coming
down the road!" I got off my shelf and ran down to the
gate just in time to see a long black car drive into camp
between two lines of one hundred heavily armed guards.
Masslennikov got out, and the limousine made a U-turn
and parked between the lines of MVD troops, its nose
pointed toward the open gate. Outside there were at least
five hundred troops patrolling.
An entourage of thirty officers, mostly colonels, fol-
lowed Masslennikov to the football field, where we had
set chairs and a long table for them in advance.
They had come ostensibly to hear our demands, and
we were quite ready for them. The strike committee had
chosen twenty speakers to present our viewpoint. Four
and a half thousand slaves in one strong mass were as-
sembled on the football field facing the Kremlin brass. I
had a choice position up front.
It was the most stirring scene I had ever witnessed in
my life. First, Gureyvich presented our demands for re-
view and reduction of sentences, and freedom for all men
who had served ten years. Then, from the ranks, one
man at a time stepped out to speak — lowly slave laborers
given a chance to pour out to one of the Soviet's mightiest
their bile about Red indecency. And presumably Mass-
lennikov had to listen.
The speeches were moving, intelligent, and biting. A
former professor of history of the University of Leningrad
said, in starting, that he knew it would mean an extra
ten years as a slave. Masslennikov protested violently:
"Nyet, nyet. You can all speak freely." The professor did.
He traced the history of slavery from pre-Pharaoh times,
through the slave trade on the Gold Coast. "But never in
the story of man," he said, "has working slavery been so
extensive or so cruelly exploited as here in the Soviet
Union — the 'liberator' of the working class!"
We passionately cheered each word. "Vot! Vot! That's
it! That's it!" I yelled with the others.
The next speaker was a former Red army officer. "I
was raised under communism and wanted no other way,"
he began. "During the war I was decorated many times.
I took seventeen bullet wounds and returned to fight
again. The eighteenth time I was wounded I fell uncon-
scious on the field. When I came to, I was a German
prisoner. I escaped and spent the rest of the war fighting
the Nazis with a band of Soviet partisans. In 1946, when
our government learned I had once been a German pris-
oner of war, I was sentenced to twenty years in Vorkuta.
Now I have come to the conclusion that communism
breeds only slavery."
A Pole spoke for the foreigners. Two former high Soviet
bureaucrats spoke about the abuse of Marxist doctrine
and its perversion in the Soviet Union. It was an exhilarat-
ing experience, listening to free men speak their minds, if
only for a few minutes.
Masslennikov was pale. He listened with head bent for-
ward for over an hour. He was obviously shocked. In his
thirty years of bolshevism, he had never heard such words
uttered publicly. He never spoke, except to interrupt oc-
casionally. "Remember, you are insulting the great Soviet
Union." When the speeches were over, he got up and left
for the next camp without a word.
Masslennikov completed his rounds of the striking
camps the next day without making a dent in the strikers*
unity. None of the camps had agreed to return to work.
The uneasy truce continued. The slaves rested, but they
were not relaxed. They joked, but the jokes covered up
Then, on August 1, three days after our meeting on the
football field and exactly ten days since the beginning of
the strike, I was coming out of the stolovaya at 6 a.m.,
after breakfast, when I saw something strange. The men of
Mine 7 were being removed from the camp and taken out
into the tundra in small groups under heavy guard. After
about thirty groups had been assembled, they started to
return, one group at a time, to the camp.
An hour later we found out what had happened. The
MVD had let the first group of Mine 7 men go back to
camp without a word. "You see," they told the second
group, "the first group has agreed to return to work. Will
you follow their example and report at the pits this morn-
ing, or do we have to shoot you all now, right here on the
tundra?" One MVD officer asked each group the same
question by prearranged order.
That broke the strike in Mine 7. The MVD troops who
had executed the threat were not from Vorkuta. They
were part of a special guards regiment of 1200 MVD
men brought in by Masslennikov to quell the rebellion.
At 9 a.m. General Masslennikov drove up to our gate
and asked for Gureyvich. His battalion was deployed on
the tundra in battle formation.
"You can see the elevator wheels are already turning
in Mine 7. It would be wisest to follow their example,"
Masslennikov said. "The ultimatum is work or death."
Gureyvich pondered a few seconds. "Give us twenty-
four hours to think it over," he said.
Masslennikov looked at him distrustfully, but answered,
"Agreed." As events turned out, Gureyvich's mastery of
the diplomatic stall had saved the lives of many of us.
From our camp, Masslennikov and his troops moved
up the road to Mine 29 on the hill next to us. We were
cut off from events for over an hour. Then, at eleven
o'clock we heard a violent outburst of gunfire that filled
the empty tundra for two full minutes. A few minutes later
there was a call for all camp doctors to rush to Mine 29.
Masslennikov had broken the back of their rebellion with
a blood bath.
Later, I was able to reconstruct the scene. Masslennikov
had driven up to the camp gates in a car equipped with a
loudspeaker, backed by his 1200 troops surrounding the
fences. Two and a half thousand slaves, arms locked,
were packed in front of the gates.
"Go back to your barracks!" Masslennikov called over
the loudspeaker. "Follow the example of the other mines.
They are already working in the pits." The crowd yelled
back insults and crowded closer to the fence.
At Masslennikov's hand signal, a squad of troops pushed
open the gates and advanced single file about fifteen feet
into the camp. But as the prisoners walked toward them
defiantly, they turned and ran. A few minutes later, two
giant fire hoses were pushed through the side fences. Four
bulky Ukrainian prisoners rushed over and jammed the
nozzles shut. When the pumps were turned on, the
water trickled harmlessly on the tundra.
"I warn you, go back to your barracks!" Masslennikov
ordered again. When no one moved, the MVD chief de-
cided to try psychological persuasion.
"All those who want to return to work, come outside
Every prisoner's eye swung in a circle around him and
glared as fifty men of the 2500 walked out.
Masslennikov looked disgustedly at the small group
and yelled: "Get back in!"
He called out on the loudspeaker the third time. "End
this rebellion now. Go back to your barracks. Organize
yourselves to work. This is the last warning I will give
you." Even before Masslennikov had completed his tirade,
the slaves chanted back, "To hell with your coal. If you
won't give us freedom, we'll take it ourselves!"
As the prisoners stood by the gate, the heavy machine
guns, set up twenty yards from the fence, and the massed
infantry opened fire. The machine-gun staccato punc-
tuated the screams of the wounded for two full minutes
until no one was left standing. Blood was over everyone.
One hundred and ten had been killed instantly. More than
five hundred were seriously wounded. Masslennikov ordered
the gates opened and barked orders to the living to come
out on the tundra. Those who still refused to work would
be killed on the spot. The survivors wailed as they stepped
over the bodies of their fallen comrades and walked to-
ward the gate.
The next day, when we learned of the Red bloodletting,
we too returned to work. Then, one at a time, an hour or
so apart, other camps surrendered to the MVD. By late
that afternoon, the uprising was over.
The next week, the MVD made up in severity for its
indecision during the strike. Every few hours another man
was dragged away and sent to a central bor set up for
strike leaders. In all, 7000 Vorkuta slaves were arrested,
300 from my camp. Three MVD officers and two guards
from Camp 3 were also arrested and charged with help-
ing to inspire the rebellion. Colonel Burtiev, one of Derev-
yenko's chief assistants, was discharged from the MVD.
Of the 7000 seized, 300 were executed without a trial.
One thousand men were transferred to the Far East, and
the rest were given additional three-to-five-year sentences.
These, with the exception of a few, were never seen or
heard of again. I never again saw Gureyvich or the heroes
who had so eloquently spoken for us that day.
I worried myself half sick all during the bloody week of
retaliation, waiting to be taken in with the others. All it
would take was one word from anyone on the strike
committee who knew my role. But they went to their Maker
without incriminating me.
BY OUR WESTERN
standards, I presume, the slave rebellion was a failure.
We had struck for freedom and we were still GULAG
slaves. But that is an oversimplification. The mere fact
that the rebellion took place at all in the Soviet Union
made it an instantaneous, glorious success. Its effect on
the Communist world was electrifying. The people of
Leningrad, in letters to free workers in Vorkuta, expressed
sympathy with our cause. Just as the East Berlin riots
drove the Soviet to a more conciliatory attitude toward its
satellites, so we 100,000 slaves in those ten days showed
the Kremlin that its own internal solidarity is a sham, a
carefully poised egg that must be handled gingerly. If
nothing else, the story of this first organized resistance to
the Soviet mammoth in thirty-five years, this strike of slave
workers in the "worker's paradise," has traveled the in-
terminable Russian grapevine and given hope to 20,000,-
000 GULAG slaves and perhaps not a few of commu-
nism's "free workers."
Vorkuta never quieted down. A triumphant spirit,
buoyed up by the wage increase we had won, was
the strike's heritage. In February 1954, a section of the
office building in Mine 7 was blown up by a homemade
bomb. Then the generator of the electric power station
was partially destroyed. An MVD search of our mine
turned up 400 sticks of dynamite planted to blow up the
main elevator shaft.
In 1954, in a shift of slaves planned to weaken our pris-
oner organizations, I was moved into Mine 29, the scene
of the August 1 massacre. The men in my barracks
proudly showed me the healed wounds of that day. Almost
every man carried one or more scars, and bullet holes still
gaped in every wall.
At this point I had lost all hope of an early release. I
had been taken out of the washroom and put on a killing
lumber job. During the strike, for no logical reason, I
somehow expected a wildly careening chain of events that
would end up with me as a free man back in Detroit. But
that dream was over, and there were eleven years left to
my sentence. In all my time in Vorkuta, I had never been
interrogated, and it disturbed me. There were times when
I hoped for some official sign that they knew of my exist-
ence. God knows — I might become one of the "forgotten"
men I had heard about, living out my life in slave camps,
lost in the morass of Soviet bureaucracy.
I had just one glimmer of hope — a three-by-five piece
of cardboard — a postcard they had never allowed me to
send to my folks in the United States but which I had
sent out over the name of another prisoner.
Only a selected few prisoners had the privilege of send-
ing cards through the International Red Cross to their
relatives. I was not one of these, and, besides, America
was on its way to becoming world enemy No. 1, according
to Soviet propagandists. One of the barbers in Camp 10,
Rudi Rohrig, was one of the few (he also is free now).
Rudi never received answers to the cards he sent; conse-
quently, he didn't care about making full use of the privi-
lege any more. Even so, he considered it dangerous to al-
low others to capitalize on his privilege. The censor knew
so intimately the history of every prisoner that one could
not hope to get away with writing to a new address.
Luckily, in May 1954 the censor was replaced by an old
MVD colonel. Would he be as well informed as his pred-
ecessor? We decided to take the chance, although the
card still would go out over the name of Rudi Rohrig. It
was addressed to a distant relative of mine in West Ger-
A day or two after the card was mailed, Rudi had to go
to shave the officers. The old colonel, under the straight
razor, asked Rudi why he had written to others than his
relatives — and why he had asked for everything under the
sun. "They will think we really are poor when they get this
card," he said.
"Well," Rudi said, "others make a little money in the
mine, but I don't get anything extra to live on. And I had
to write to neighbors, because my relatives never answer."
"If that's the case," said the colonel, "I'll let the card go
out this time. But don't ever dare write a letter like that
We wondered if the card would get through; and, if it
did, whether the recipients would rightly interpret the
words "noble nephew" and send the card on to Detroit.
They did send it to my family, but I did not learn this for
more than half a year.
Early in June, I was eating my cabbage soup in the
stolovaya when the nevalney, my barracks master, rushed
in excitedly. "Amerikanitz, the camp commander is look-
ing for you. You have orders to proceed to Moscow." I
looked up at him and laughed in my soup. A few minutes
later, a friend came in with the same news.
I rushed nervously to the Administration Building and
stood at attention before MVD Lieutenant Antrashkevich.
"You are to leave for Moscow at 7 A.M.," he said.
"To Moscow?" I asked.
"As far as I know, you're going home," Antrashkevich
I heard him, but the words didn't sink in. I wouldn't let
them. The thought was wild. Why should I be released?
There was no general amnesty. I had so lost touch with
the world that Vorkuta and its regulations were the only
reality I understood. But I prayed, just in case.
Very few prisoners of Arctic camps lived to see freedom.
Few were transported back to Moscow. A few handfuls
left in November or December 1953, but no one ever
heard whether they were finally released or were held in
some other camp. The American Homer Cox was among
Now that it was my turn to leave, I wondered what lay
A slip with fourteen questions had to be signed in the
various departments — kitchen, bathroom, stockroom, li-
brary, office, and even the political branches.
I didn't get much sleep that night. Many men of the
various nationalities came to me to ask if I would send
word to their loved ones when I was free. Others wanted
me to pass on to the free world the true condition of the
slaves, so that their eyes might be opened and they might
avoid a similar end.
There were others I should have liked to talk to a little
more, so that I might give details to responsible authori-
ties. Among these were some who had been only a few
days in our camp, deported from their home town because
they knew too much. They had lived close to the place
where the first two Soviet atomic tests were made. The
Kremlin gang did not want the world to know that the un-
finished bombs and the laboratories were blasted. Foreign
instruments recorded the explosion, and the Soviets were
obliged to announce it as a successful test. Were all testa
The sleepless hours of that night flew by, and before 1
knew it hundreds were up to wave farewell as I was
marched to the railroad by an unarmed guard.
I was taken to Camp 15. Outside the gate a fellow slave
worker was repairing the fence. "Te tagshay Amerikan-
itz? — Are you also an American?" he asked. I replied with
"We have two of your countrymen here who are also
A few minutes later I met U.S. Army Privates Marchuk
and Verdine. We rode together to the railway station. It
was a pleasure to speak English again, although I was
careful with every word I said. I did not know these two
men, and their meeting me could be a trap. True, the
Soviets knew I didn't share their view of life and would
never become a Communist; also, I had committed no
crime. There was nothing, therefore, to be afraid of, noth-
ing to avoid talking about. But the years in Communist
prisons had taught me that they will turn your words any
way they want to, and for this reason I was on guard. I
was particularly careful with Marchuk, because he spoke
a very good Russian. Verdine, on the other hand, could
not speak the language so fluently, and I felt more con-
fidence in him.
Marchuk told me he had gotten drunk in a bar in Berlin
and wandered across the Red border. Verdine said he
had been kidnaped while on duty at the demarcation line.
As we spoke I kept thinking. "Why three Americans
traveling together? Are we going to a special slave camp
for Americans? Could there be another reason? Was there
a chance that Antrashkevich was right?"
At the Vorkuta station, I walked right up to the parked
Stalopinski and waited for the MVD officer walking behind
me. He laughed: "No, no, Amerikanitz. That's not for
you any more. Get in the train!"
The three of us, without handcuffs and accompanied
by two MVD officers, traveled in a civilian passenger train
from Vorkuta to Moscow.
The officers explained that they did not speak English,
and so our conversation with them had to be in Russian. I
would have believed them if they had not fallen so easily
into a trap. Sitting on the upper bench, which was
for sleeping only, with Marchuk and Verdine, I asked the
Americans what time it was. I kept my eyes on the Rus-
sian officers below. Automatically the officers looked at
their watches. I knew, then, that they understood English.
It was to take four days to reach Moscow. Because
there was no diner, we had cold meals. As we stopped
at stations on the way, children and old women would run
alongside the train, selling a hot potato, an egg, a ladle of
milk. Chains of beggars filed through the cars, old and
young, sick and blind, complaining that they had no work
and no home. The officers kept them moving along, but
it was obvious that, before us Americans, the beggars were
a cause of embarrassment.
The officers did not seem to object, however, when girls
and women traveling on the train undressed at night down
to their underclothing before lying down to sleep. A very
few had colorful pajamas, which they not only wore sleep-
ing but when they left the train to shop along the platform.
Even after we arrived in Moscow, some went into the street
in their pajamas.
Moscow was a big change for us. A dozen or so MVD
officials were at the station to receive us. We were escorted
to a bus — which from the outside I recognized as a prison
car with cells. This took us to Boutyrki, the Soviet Union's
most elaborate prison. After all extras were taken from us,
we were shown to our room. This was a large three-bed cell,
with fresh sheets, all the comforts, and even a clean toilet
The next day two colonels visited us. They asked how
we were, and I, speaking for the three of us, asked what
was coming next.
"You are not going back to a slave camp," said one.
"Where would you like to go if you were set free?" asked
Almost in unison we replied, "To the U.S.A."
Soon after the visit was over we were called down to the
reception room where, wonder of wonders, our measure-
ments were taken and we were asked what color of suit we
preferred, and what style of shoes and hat.
Two weeks passed, and we were impatient. The fitting
had been completed and we were eager to go. Finally,
wearing our prison clothes and with our new outfits in
small suitcases, we were taken to a camp in Potma, some
three hundred miles to the southeast in the Mordvinian
Republic. Potma (Camp 5110-34) had held many Czarist
prisoners at one time.
We were marched to an old, relatively small camp. Our
suitcases were taken into security, we were checked in and,
surprisingly, told to report for work at 8:00 a.m.
Three army cots were assigned to us in a half-empty
room facing the gate. Within minutes the room was
crowded. Dozens of questions were put to us: where from,
what camp, when arrested, destination. The question as
to our next destination interested us most. "Where can you
go from here?" I asked.
Potma, they explained, was the repatriation camp.
Sooner or later we should be going home. No one works
here, they said, except for camp upkeep. This was at vari-
ance with what we were told at the gate. Was someone
The next morning we did not report to work. A guard
soon came and hauled us off to the camp commander,
Lieutenant Litwinenko. He dressed us down for not obey-
ing orders. I explained to him, on behalf of the three of
us, that we had been told in Moscow we were not going to
another slave camp. If they wanted us to work they would
have to send us back to a work camp. I told him that pos-
sibly most of the Yugoslavs, Austrians, Germans, Greeks,
Spaniards, and Hungarians in this camp had fought
against Russia at one time or another. But we Americans
had done all we could to help Russia win the war. With-
out our help, I said, getting warmed up, Russia would
have been wiped off the map. Now the camp administra-
tion wanted us to serve as examples so that they could
force all those men to work for them.
Litwinenko's face was red with anger. Where had I
learned Russian? he wanted to know.
"I learned it in your own camps," I said. He shook his
head and mumbled that I could talk better than a Russian
We did no work at Potma, except for light chores. With
the help of European Red Cross packages, my ninety-
five-pound frame took on thirty more pounds. They must
be fattening me up for something, I thought — almost
hopefully. But when months had passed and nothing had
happened, I nearly lost hope.
I managed to send a postcard to an aunt in Berlin.
Wonder of wonders, an answer came some weeks later.
God must have intended that I receive this reply, for the
guards were doing all in their power to keep me incom-
municado. The censor, Major Baron, was on vacation, and
the girl who had taken over promised to let me read any
mail that might come, but she would have to take it back.
Unfortunately, Baron returned on the day of mail delivery
and was ready to take over. The girl merely picked up the
cards that had come from the postoffice and, without hav-
ing censored them, handed them to Baron in the camp,
among the men. Baron read out the names on the cards.
He read my name, and had I been right before him he
would have remembered not to give the card to me; but
someone quicker than his mental process grabbed for it,
passing it on to me. It was the first line I had received, the
first sign of life from the free world. It was September 26,
1954, more than nine and a quarter years since I had seen
my mother. She and my father, thank God, were at home
in Detroit. The card did not, of course, let me know what
they were doing. I could not know at that time that the
Soviets had stolen our home in Dresden, our clothing, our
furniture, and our camera factories. The cameras (Prakti-
flex, Practica, and others) were sold and still are being
sold in almost every American camera store. The profits
go to the Communist Party. It was not enough that they
should hold my father for seven years, or that I was still in
their hands. They were doing everything to ruin us, even
in the free world, by misusing trade marks and patents and
by spreading false statements.
One thing the card did tell me, and that was that I was
not alone in the world.
I was told that from that day I was a different human
being. Now, more than ever, I protested, wrote petitions,
demanded my rights. No fewer than twenty-five petitions
were yet to be answered by the Soviets, but I was deter-
mined to rock their nerves.
The weeks in Potma again were moving slowly. New
prisoners arrived every day. Periodically, men and women
left for their homeland and freedom. A few days before I
was to depart, an elderly woman arrived who was very
much in the eyes of the guards. She was "Madame
Gorskaja," the first wife of the new Soviet boss, Nikita
Khrushchev. She said virtually nothing about him or
about their life together.
At last, on the evening of December 30, 1 was told that
I was going back to Moscow on January 2, 1955. True to
their word, I left Potma, arriving in Moscow on the third,
the subject of what seemed VIP treatment at the hands of
the Soviets. My new civilian woolen suit was given to me,
and with Marchuk I was barracked in a fine home in the
Bukova suburb of Moscow. I slept on the first real bed —
a hard but real, individual bed — in more than nine years.
That afternoon a special delegation from the Kremlin
itself came to see us. I jumped when I saw it was headed
by General Masslennikov, the butcher of Vorkuta! He
was accompanied by four colonels.
"You will leave for Berlin tomorrow, Mr. Noble, where
you will be turned over to American authorities," Mass-
lennikov said. "Meanwhile you will be shown Moscow by
one of our officers."
I was really going home! And of all the irony, I was
hearing it from Masslennikov! I was deliriously happy, but
I controlled myself in front of the Russians.
Masslennikov shook my hand, then asked casually: "By
the way, where were you in the Soviet Union?"
When I said "Vorkuta," the color drained from his face.
"In which mine?" he asked, trying to maintain composure.
"Mines 16 and 29," I answered. I was enjoying the game.
He squinted at me nervously, then asked: "Do you rec-
"No," I lied, cautiously.
"Did you take part in the strike?"
"Certainly," I answered proudly. "We all did."
I spent the rest of the day seeing Moscow. I was not
particularly impressed. Some of the main streets looked a
little like those of western cities, but to go a hundred feet
off a main thoroughfare was to take a trip back to the eight-
eenth century. The same people who had abused me for
nine and a half years were now treating me as if I were a
visiting schoolteacher on a summer vacation.
The next day, Marchuk and I, chaperoned by an MVD
colonel, boarded the famous Blue Express from Moscow
to East Berlin. Along the way, I thought how differently I
was making the trip this time. In 1950 I had covered the
same route on my stomach in a stinking Stalopinski. Now
I was having a 35-ruble dinner on white tablecloths in the
dining car, by courtesy of the MVD.
I was amazed at my own calmness as we rolled through
Soviet and Polish territory. Every now and then a new set
of officers would check our papers. "Where's the third
man?" they would often ask. They were asking about
Verdine, no doubt.
"I signed for him," the colonel would answer.
I couldn't imagine why they kept Verdine in Potma. The
Soviets knew we would report his whereabouts as soon as
we were free. Or were we not to be free?
American officers would meet us at the train, we were
told. But we had learned that the more rank the Soviet
officers display on their shoulder boards the less they tell
the truth. The colonel accompanying us kept pointing out
factories along the line and telling us the fine things that
were made there: no arms, no tanks, nothing but the good
things of life. As an example of what the factories were
making, he called my attention to the charming little lamp
on the table before the train window. I, in turn, pointed to
a cast mark on the lamp which said "Made in Germany,"
and asked him if he might be mistaken. A cold smile and
a change of subject was his reply.
Crossing the German border was an interesting experi-
ence. The train was examined from top to bottom. Every
slit was checked. A spy might send a communication from
Moscow to Berlin in a wall crack.
, Later I was to learn why I was returning home in such
fine style. Word brought to the U.S. by Homer Cox
showed the door, and the postcard I had mailed over Roh-
rig's name from Vorkuta was the key. As soon as this
reached my parents in Detroit, my father brought it di-
rectly to the State Department. The State Department dis-
patched another note to the Kremlin — from 1945 to the
summer of 1954 the Russians had answered all U.S.
notes with the statement that they had no knowledge of
me. After the evidence was in the hands of our State De-
partment, one note was sent after another, but the Soviets
ignored them. Not one of these notes was acknowledged.
Meanwhile Congressman Alvin Bentley of Michigan
had become interested in my case. He discussed it with
President Eisenhower personally. In December 1954 the
President sent a diplomatic note to Ambassador Bohlen
in Moscow stating that our government had proof that I
was a prisoner in the Soviet. Mr. Bohlen took it up directly
with the Kremlin and soon I was on my way home.
The Blue Express brought me into East Berlin at 2:50
p.m. on January 8, 1955. No American officers were there
to meet us. Fifteen minutes later I was in a room in Karls-
horst, Soviet East Berlin HQ. There, I almost lost control
of myself when a U.S. army liaison officer and two State
Department officials walked in. One of the officials, Mr.
Pratt, the U.S. consul in Berlin, signed a receipt for me.
I must confess that, even though I had gone through nine
and a half years of degradation, starvation, Arctic cold,
and the hardest of physical labor, I broke down at this
moment. My resistance gave way and I cried with joy.
I was in the hands of the American authorities. Outside,
I walked down the steps and into a State Department car
that drove me to West Berlin and freedom. I had crossed
a border that separated two worlds. The world of fear,
terror, deceit, Godlessness, and slavery was behind me in
the east. I was returning to the west, to a world of busy
people developing their lives according to their abilities, a
world of freedom and of moral standards almost unknown
to the people of the Communist realm. From the Soviet
Union, truly the richest country in respect to natural re-
sources, but the poorest nation, I had come to a world
of plenty which too often was not appreciated, for which
too often gratitude was not expressed to God.
"Well, how does it feel to be back?" Mr. Pratt asked me.
I thought of Vorkuta, then looked out the window at
the passing spectacle of the Western world. It was as if I
had spent nine and a half years on some fierce, distorted
satellite of the earth.
"Thank God," I answered. "I have so much to tell, I
could not express it in words alone, Mr. Pratt."
At 1:30 a.m., the morning of January 17, 1955, I
landed at Idlewild Airport, where I saw my family again.
I had been a slave in Russia; now I was free!
The following Soviet account provides an example of the
manner in which the Communists fabricate and distort
facts with which to feed their propaganda machine. Their
purpose is to develop, in the Communist world, a greater
apathy toward the West, and to convince the free world
that the Soviets have good reason to violate international
law and the basic rules of human behavior.
YESTERDAY THE NOBLES-
TODAY GENERAL GEHLEN*
by Max Seydewitz
WEST BERLIN newspapers are publish-
ing slanderous reports by American John Noble without, however,
referring with one word to the criminal role which he and his father
played as imperialist agents in Dresden during the Nazi war. The
past of the Nobles and their activities in Germany are illuminated
by Volkskammer Representative Max Seydewitz' book The De-
struction and Reconstruction of Dresden. Following is an excerpted
chapter from the book which is to be published shortly by the
"The connections between American and German monopoly
capitalists which never ceased during the war were intensified con-
siderably toward the end of the war when the defeat of Hitlerite
* Translation from Taegliche Rundschau (Soviet occupation daily), Janu-
ary 13, 1955.
Germany and the failure of its world domination plans were in-
evitable. The efforts toward the establishment of a joint front
against the Soviet Union, which had to be abandoned at the be-
ginning of World War II because of the German imperialists'
aggressive attempt at attaining world dominance, once again moved
to the fore.
•The more the Soviet army cut the Fascist Wehrmacht to pieces
and the more evident the total military defeat of Germany became,
the more inclined were the defeated German imperialists to accept
the offers of the imperialist American billionaires. This showed,
during the last weeks of the war, also in the attitude of the Nazi
leaders who were seeking opportunities to offer their services to the
American imperialists. The secret collaboration of German and
foreign destroyers of Germany which was gaining impetus toward
the end of the war had many severe consequences for the German
people, one being the destruction of the beautiful city of Dresden.
"In the final phase of the war, many of the important British
and American agents, who were staying in Germany by order of
their bosses, revealed their identity to the Nazi leaders. Many a
Dresden resident will have wondered why the beautiful, large villa
San Remo in the White Deer district, located in the immediate
vicinity of the Loisenhof , was occupied by an American citizen by
the name of Noble and his family who lived like millionaires and
on whom no Nazi authority imposed any restrictions, save intern-
ment, as was the usage in times of war. Noble, let us presume,
had been recommended by the gentlemen of the Standard Oil
Company or General Motors to their business partners of the IG
Farben as a particularly important person. Noble, it was indicated,
was to organize, in the now declining war, the close cooperation
of the German and American monopolists. So this American was
persona grata also to the Nazi authorities. Noble's duties naturally
included intrigues and espionages against the Soviet Union, and
the gravediggers of Germany assisted him all too willingly. This,
however, did not keep Noble from also spying on the Third Reich.
For information on the Soviet Union which he received by wire
from agents of his bosses in Wall Street and which he passed to
the Nazi leaders, he obtained in return confidential information
)on Germany which he transmitted to his managers by wireless
from villa San Remo.
"Thanks to the good work performed by Nazi-informed Mr.
Noble, the Anglo-American headquarters had the best knowledge
of conditions prevailing in Dresden. British Air Marshal Harris
and General Spaatz, commander-in-chief of USAAF, knew exactly
that Dresden was jammed with refugees and wounded. They knew
the exact location of the densely populated residential quarters,
of the 'Zwinger,' the 'Frauenkirche' and other cultural monu-
ments and churches. They also knew where Dresden's military
targets lay on which no bombs were dropped on February 13.
They explicitly forbade the fliers to drop bombs on the White Deer
district, for the Anglo-American headquarters by no means wished
to endanger the life of its precious agent living in this area. For
this reason, the White Deer was one of the few districts which were
spared in the February 13 and 14 air raids.
"Although the Nazi leaders knew that the terror raid on Dresden
had been directed by Mr. Noble, they refrained from arresting and
punishing the American after the monstrous crime committed
against the art city of Dresden and its population. The reasons
therefor we find in a telephone conversation which Goebbels con-
ducted at 4 a.m. on February 14 with Mutschmann who was sitting
in a safe place at Grillenburg. In their conversation on the effects
of the bomb raid on Dresden, which was taken down in shorthand
and a stenographic report on which was available at the end of the
war, Goebbels instructed the Saxon Gau leader 'not to lose contact
with Noble,' for the man cannot be weighed up in gold.'
'Thereby Goebbels referred to the assistance which Noble had
promised to the Nazi leaders for the time after the surrender. We
can imagine what Noble and Mutschmann discussed during their
secret meetings. The agent of the American billionaires certainly
told the bankrupt Nazi Gau leader bluntly that the Nazis had lost
their war and could save their future position only by surrendering
to the men in Wall Street and by unconditionally recognizing the
world-wide supremacy of the U.S.A. However, they would have
to prove their readiness by immediate action, including their avail-
ability for the fight against the Soviet Union and their assistance
in damming the growing influence of the Soviet Union before the
war came to an end.
"Mutschmann, of course, was as willing as Goebbels and the
other Nazi leaders on whose behalf he maintained contact with
Noble. That was why Mutschmann conscientiously carried out the
instructions he had received from Goebbels. The Mutschmanns,
Goebbelses and their like wanted to destroy, together with the
Nobles and the men who had given orders for the destruction of
Dresden, as much as possible of that part of Germany which had
been laid down at the Yalta conference as the future Soviet Zone
of occupation. The terrible sufferings and the tremendous damage
thus inflicted upon the German people made no difference to the
destroyers of Germany. What they wanted was licking the spittle
of the American imperialists in order to save themselves from the
disaster they had caused.
"The Nobles remained in their nice villa San Remo for some
time after the war. They were instructed to continue the spying
against the Soviet Union, which Noble had carried out already dur-
ing the war, in the postwar Soviet occupation zone. But as Mutsch-
mann, who while being Gau leader used to act the strong man
and brutal dictator, turned out, after his arrest, to be a pitiable
coward and weakling, he probably betrayed all about his collabora-
tion with the Nobles and their activities.
"At any rate, the Nobles were stopped very early from continuing
their criminal assignment. The beautiful villa San Remo first be-
came the city guest house of Dresden and later was converted into
a club house for the workers. From the terrace of the villa located
on White Deer Hill the whole city can be overlooked. Surely, the
Nobles were waiting in the night of that Tuesday for the punctual
appearance of the Christmas trees' [popular German term for
flares dropped by aircraft during night raids] over the dark sil-
houette of Dresden to show the bombers their target. Surely, the
Nobles then stood at the window of villa San Remo, enjoying the
macabre sight of the burning flames and of the collapsing precious
cultural monuments and noting with heinous satisfaction the de-
struction of the art city of Dresden as well as the fulfillment of
the mission which they directed and which the Nazi leaders sup-
"The destruction of the art city of Dresden shortly before the
end of the war is only one example of the crimes which the
secretly collaborating German imperialists, militarists, and Fascists
and the Anglo-American imperialists committed against the German
people. Since the end of World War II, the German and foreign
destroyers of Germany have been collaborating openly for quite
a while, and their objective is the preparation of another imperialist
smash-and-grab war and of further horrible crimes against the
"In order to prepare the war which the American imperialists
want to wage for the conquest of the world, a number of pro-
posals were laid down in the official American report on the results
of the Anglo-American air war against Germany, the 'United States
Strategic Bombing Survey,* From the fact that the whole air war
did not suffice to decrease German armament production, that the
terror raids on German cities in which the houses of the civilian
population were destroyed and women and children were murdered
were without military significance, the official American document
failed to draw the consequence, namely, to renounce this kind of
air warfare and prohibit mass extermination media in future wars.
On the contrary, it was proposed to intensify the strategic air war-
fare in the next war and 'to select the targets of air raids more
carefully' than during World War II. That is, not to attack all
possible armament enterprises with insufficient means but to con-
centrate the raids on centers of gravity mentioned in the reports
as 'gasoline, chemicals, steel, electricity and the traffic net.' In
order to always be able to raid these centers uninterruptedly with
a superior air force, the document's authors recommended to the
U.S. rulers the expansion of a powerful U.S. air force because, in
their opinion, the air force will play a great role in the next war
in the 'connection of atom bomb and remote-controlled missiles
with trans-oceanic range.' Because — the official American docu-
ment continues — there would be 'no greater mistake than assuming
that the practices and policies which led to victory during the
Second World War will be sufficient for the next one.'
"The improved practices recommended here which had already
been used to prepare the war and which had been applied in the
cold war include espionage and sabotage activities employed by
the United States in Germany and all countries of the peaca
camp. The 'United States Strategic Bombing Survey' stated that
it was difficult in the beginning of the air war against Germany
to recognize the targets, since the United States, at that time, did
not have a working espionage organization in Germany and the
Air Force command lacked data on important targets. The official
American report says literally: "There was no cooperation between
military and other organizations — regardless of their private or
official character. It developed only during the war. Experience has
taught that it is better that such institutions exist all the time' [that
is, also in peace time. — Author].
"In line with this proposal the American imperialists continued to
maintain and even enlarge their espionage organization established
in Germany after the end of the war in order to create an instru-
ment for the next war prepared by them. The basis for the ex-
pansion of the American espionage net was laid already during
the last months of World War II in cooperation with the Nobles
•This cooperation resulted in the transfer of the Nazi espionage
apparatus into American services. The German Nazis who raved
most loudly against the American plutocrats during the Nazi regime
have been working, since the end of the war, for the realization of
the world conquest plans of the American imperialists. Among
those working currently for the American espionage center are
numerous Nazi war criminals sentenced by courts but freed from
prisons by the Americans. Nazi General Gehlen is heading the
thus reinforced Fascist espionage organization, whose leading
members are former SS and Gestapo leaders. The Gehlen organi-
zation's activities are an example of the American imperialists' and
German Fascists' open collaboration in the preparation of another
"The criminal tactics of the U.S. imperialism-serving Gehlen
espionage organization, exercised illegally in the German Democratic
Republic against the vital interests of all German people, were re-
vealed by numerous of its members who did not want to continue
participating in this crime. This fact was stressed in all proceedings
of the German Democratic Republic's Supreme Court against
Gehlen agents. Early in November 1954, for instance, main de-
fendant Bandelow in the process against the Bandelow gang ad-
mitted that he had been committed to act according to the 'General
Order for All' which was found in his possession. This order con-
tained minutely detailed instructions for the case of war. Every
agent received detailed instructions about his duties in case of the
repeated dropping of American bombs on German soil. By means
of radio equipment found on them and with the aid of other
facilities, the Gehlen spies were to report the results of the ta*Tor
raids on traffic facilities, railroads, bridges, streets, power plants,
etc., and keep their employers continuously informed on im-
portant targets, as well as newly constructed railroads, bridges and
, VORKUTA pX*M